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Insider Art

An annual show featuring paintings and drawings by Connecticut prisoners has grown less controversial over the years

By Adam Bulger

May 15, 2008

When Danny Killion was convicted of bank robbery decades ago, he joined a prison arts program because he thought drawing would be a good way to pass his hard time. And with his 157-month sentence, he had a lot of time to kill. He was bounced between three state institutions and a Pennsylvania federal prison before getting released last year, and says the program was instrumental in his rehabilitation.

He started with simple sketches drawn on paper with pencils. Later, as his hours of practice improved his skills, he created a series of abstract sculptures that depict human figures often connected to machinery. His sculptures, which explore the inner workings of both machines and people, are largely thematically united. It took him years to notice, but creating art changed his thought process.

"When you create something, you have to slow down. You have to think about what you're trying to create," Killion said. "When you're thinking about what you're trying to create, you can't help but think about who you are and why you're trying to create whatever image you're doing."

The idea of an annual show of art by prisoners started out as a novelty, and has since become a tradition. Featuring the works of more than 150 artists from the state's 15 prisons, the Community Partners in Action's 2008 show of inmate art marks the 30th anniversary of the program.

The art made by the prisoners is varied and often stunning. The works on display range from abstract images Larry White's "Ella Compos Banderas," for example, is an interlocking grid of bright patterns and shapes to finely detailed real-life scenes. CPA Prison Arts Program Manager Jeffrey Greene said that when he started working with the program 16 years ago, the emphasis shifted from technical instruction to personal expression.

"Between myself and the director at the time, Sam Connor, we refocused the program onto making art about yourself, and making unique expressions and building bodies of artwork," Greene said.

The personal expression encouraged through the program makes for unique work that rises above the level of novelty. Instead of being a sort of a freak show fulfilling patrons' morbid curiosity, the art makes a strong statement on its own.

Not to say that the context of prison is absent. Kinja Rose's "Where's Daddy" is a meticulous rendering of an infant holding a pair of handcuffs; the picture answers its own title, subtly and heartbreakingly. It's hard not to look at John Malone's "Long Distance Calls," portraying a group of men and women tangled in telephone cords, without thinking of calls made from inside prisons.

Many of the more abstract images seem to imply narratives. An untitled piece by Angel Gomez features an array of precisely rendered, seemingly disparate images: a statue of the Virgin Mary, a young girl, a man in pain, a chalk outline and a junkie shooting up. A comparison could be made to Dali, but what's more striking is how much of the artist's life is in such an abstract work.

"The exhibition used to be something the public and the press found to be shocking, strange and unusual," Green said. "And now, it's a normal event that happens in the community every year."

Because of several high-profile violent crimes committed in the last two years by parolees and released prisoners, Greene worries that the show is going to attract unwanted, sensationalistic interest.

"I think that it's going to impact the way some people view the prison arts program. I think there will be a less sympathetic eye," Greene said.

The show has already met with negative attention due to the inclusion of works by celebrated inmate Michael Skakel. A member of the Kennedy family, Skakel was convicted in 2002 of the 1975 murder of 15-year-old Martha Moxley in Greenwich.

"For high-profile inmates, [art is] a chance to redefine yourself somehow," Greene said.

Greene said that Skakel has focused on producing art as a way of communicating with his 9-year-old son. The painting featured in the show, "FAITH for George," is a surreal mix of images including jungle creatures and a skeleton with a scythe surrounding a realistic rendering of Skakel's son.

After Governor Rell's crackdown on parole earlier this year, Greene said he's seen pervasive despondency among the prisoners, which he fears will lead to unrest among the prison population and problems when they re-enter society, and questioned the fairness of punishing all prisoners for the actions of a few.

"What happens is that as soon as there's this horrible crime, people decide we have to change the laws based on this one horrible crime. ... Last year I had a student at Cheshire Correctional who had been incarcerated for two decades, and he was innocent. But my reaction to that isn't that we let everyone free. My reaction to that is that this one man is innocent."

The program could be accused of being fanciful or frivolous; art is often considered a leisure pursuit, and the program's participants are, after all, prisoners. However, the way creating art influences a person's thought process can arguably become an extremely effective rehabilitation method. Crime is often the result of shortsighted, impulsive thinking. By contrast, art happens through extended periods of concentration.

"You really have to plan things out a little more extensively. When you're trying to reach an end, it does give you that sense of having an end you'd like to reach, so what are the steps I need to take to reach that goal?" Killion said. "It also teaches you that it didn't quite work the way I'm hoping it would, so how can I manipulate one thing or another to reach the end I desire?"

Greene recalled a student he worked with who had a vision for a piece that entailed months of work. The final product, a detailed illustration of biblical scenes that encompassed dozens of pages, was shown to students at a woman's prison in Niantic. The work itself and the time spent on it made a lasting impression on the inmates.

"I told them all about how a guy worked all year on a drawing, and it didn't happen all at once. It's about work ethic," Greene said.

For some inmates involved in the program, the program's value lies in how it offers a connection to the outside world. Michael Iovieno, who spent almost half of his 53 years in Connecticut correctional facilities, said that knowing his work was seen by people outside of prison helped him feel like part of the world.

"One of the things I really appreciated from the art program and there were many things is that they were able to take our stuff from the inside and bring it to the outside," Iovieno said. "By them doing that, it allowed me to live on the outside through my artwork. People who never met me got to know me through my artwork."

Greene said that creating art is an invaluable way for prisoners to maintain communication with their families. "The ability to have some kind of substantial, constructive interaction with your family is difficult in prison," he said. "The amount of money it costs to call someone on the phone is crazy. You have to call collect. A visiting room is inherently demeaning. Sending artwork to [your] children and discussing [it] becomes that constructive interaction."

Iovieno also suggested that creating art can be a healthy, cathartic outlet for prisoners.

"The majority of guys there do have a negative outlook and a negative way," Iovieno said. "But through the expression of art and other positive programs they can get away from that."

The show, Greene said, is not meant as an apology or an explanation for the inmates' crimes.

"We're not glorifying inmates; we're not taking a side," said Greene, "We're trying to express how complicated the world is."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Advocate.
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