At first glance, the painting "Faith for George" is perplexing.
Who is the boy in the LOVE T-shirt and why is he in some wild place surrounded by animals including a lion, wart hog, zebra and lamb? Why is a skeletal death figure staring at him? And what's the unblinking eye in the sky, above the setting red sun?
The work, one of 333 pieces to be exhibited next month in a Hartford show of artwork by 152 Connecticut inmates, makes sense once its creator, Michael Skakel, explains it.
"It's about my communicating my trust that God will look after my beloved son in a dangerous world while I cannot protect him, comfort him or be with him at this time. The 'Eye in the Sky' represents God's all knowing and watchful eye always looking over George for me," Skakel said this week in a written communication from MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution in Suffield, where he is serving 20 years to life for the 1975 murder of Greenwich neighbor Martha Moxley.
Similar themes of loss and faith are in many of the works that will be displayed from May 1-28 at the Conrad L. Mallett Gallery at Capital Community College, 950 Main St., Hartford.
John Malone's "Long Distance Calls" depicts people he calls. Another painting of a forlorn child, standing alone on a deserted street, is what Timothy Iassogna remembers of the day his mother abandoned him when he was 3.
Other works are less dark. There are sketches of children, bright landscapes with flowers, even a pocketbook made with folded, braided plastic wrappers of instant ramen noodles packets.
"It's a common folk art in prison. People use the materials available," said Jeffrey Greene, manager of Community Partners in Action's prison arts program. Inmate-artist Edward Schanck made that purse from hundreds of ramen wrappers.
The works, which include painting, drawing, sketches and sculptures, are done by inmates participating in the nonprofit arts program. There are art classes in eight of the state's 22 correctional facilities and waiting lists for the workshops in most places, Greene said.
The classes are part of the state's efforts to rehabilitate inmates; almost all of the nearly 20,000 men and women now incarcerated will eventually be released back into society.
"Art not only provides a form of positive recreation, but it often involves the kind of self-examination that leads offenders to finally take responsibility for their actions and hopefully plays a role in redirecting their life down a path to re-enter law-abiding society," Brian Garnett, director of external affairs for the state Department of Correction, said Friday.
Greene, involved with the art project for the past 16 years of its 30-year history, spent time Thursday talking about the show, the inmate-artists and their works. He spoke warmly of many of the artists he taught — some imprisoned for decades to come, others now out and doing well in society.
The yearly show often draws random visitors, not just friends and families of the inmate-artists.
"I think it's important that this show is part of the community," he said.
He and the other teachers shy away from learning of the crimes and convictions that got their students incarcerated. The program is about art and the purpose is to tap into the artistic expression that most folks never explore, Greene said.
"We don't talk about crimes, about what's happening in the cellblock. We're interested in teaching art," he said.
Many of the inmates in the program have little or no art training, but work hard on it once they start classes. Many also watch all the art shows they can on public television, which Greene said is the most-watched network inside prisons.
Past offenses have no bearing on whether an inmate can get into the program. But they have to behave in prison and avoid disciplinary tickets to stay in the classes, he said.
"Art is an incredible tool for growth," Greene said. "It's one of the great humanizing things we can do. Community response to inhumane behavior should be a humane response. You don't want to strip away every possible tool to help someone succeed and then release that person."
Skakel, who admires Georgia O'Keeffe, Monet and Cezanne but had no formal art training prior to the class, created what Greene called "a pretty solid artwork."
It's one of about 50 works that Skakel has done so far. He's sent some art to relatives and it's helped him stay connected to family, Greene said.
Closer family connections are a common result of the art program, Greene said, "and he's no different."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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