I ARRIVE IN TORONTO during gay pride week. The lampposts lining the city streets fly rainbow flags. Inside the Sheraton are still more rainbows, small ones on sticks stuck into the mulched flowerbeds surrounding the ten-foot waterfall cascading into a pool edged with flagstones. Every time I see one, I can’t help wondering what Chuck Colson might think of this open support for gay rights. He believes one can be delivered from homosexuality. In common parlance, they should pray away the gay.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Colson, legal counsel to President Nixon, one of the Watergate Seven, and author of the infamous Nixon Enemies List, a litany of politicians, business leaders, media heads, journalists, and celebrities who he proposed needed to be “screwed with” in order to protect Nixon’s 1972 bid for reelection, among them the heads of the AFL-CIO and UAW, and Paul Newman.
Hunter S. Thompson, who covered the 1972 campaign for Rolling Stone, wrote that Colson was Nixon’s “hatchet man,” an “evil genius” who “should be tied by his testicles behind an Olds 88 and dragged down Pennsylvania Avenue.”
Three years later Colson pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice for his role in Watergate and was sentenced to one to three years in prison. He served only seven months. During this time, he read Lewis’s Mere Christianity and was born again.
Commentators questioned the sincerity of his conversion, smelling a ploy to get an early release. The Boston Globe wrote, “If Mr. Colson can repent of his sins, there just has to be hope for everybody.” But following his release he did not return to political thug life. He founded Prison Fellowship International, now one of the largest Christian aid organizations in the world, spanning 119 countries and every region of the world.
PFI has done inspiring work over the past forty years, much of it on behalf of inmates in prisons in the developing world, where conditions are often atrocious, and few programs exist to help prisoners reform their ways so they can reenter society and lead productive lives. Colson’s organization funds education and work- and life-skills training, and has championed alternative incarceration options, like halfway houses and restorative justice communities, where inmates are given the opportunity to repair the harm done to victims and communities through restitution and mediation circles.
Over the last two years, PFI has begun to more actively promote art instruction as a way of helping prisoners express and examine their emotions. National chapters are organizing yearly competitions and exhibitions, and working to provide prisoners with greater access to art supplies.
I have come to Toronto to cover PFI’s International Prisoner Art Contest and Exhibition. This year’s theme is “Hope, Forgiveness, Restoration, and Freedom.”
The invitation came at an auspicious time for me. For a long time I’ve been thinking and writing about whether one must be a good person in order to make good art. Here was an opportunity for me to see works of art by criminals from all over the world, who, according to the PFI press kit, were using art as a tool to overcome their pasts.
Through interlibrary loan I was able to get my hands on Phyllis Kornfeld’s Cellblock Visions: Prison Art in America, whose introduction by Outsider Art specialist Roger Cardinal provides a good history of prison art and directed me to the surprisingly rich scholarly literature. Foremost is Hans Prinzhorn’s 1926 Bildnerei der Gefangenen (“Artistry of Convicts”), a study of seven hundred works of art from across three centuries, undertaken to help the German psychiatrist and aesthetician understand how the artistic impulse played out in the restrictive and dehumanizing atmosphere of prisons.
Among the works he evaluated were packs of illustrated playing cards, an ornately carved wooden wall, numerous macabre self-portraits, and religious iconography, most notably a hand-carved wooden crucifix containing a hidden dagger.
Prinzhorn’s conclusions are hardly earth-shattering now. He observed that the impulse to make and create is heightened in prisoners because of the tension between “desire and actuality”—hope, dream, and fantasy cut with the bitterness and despair of their sentences.
Despite the ingenuity and, in some cases, undeniable talent of the artists, Prinzhorn tempered his praise for the work, arguing that “those who dare to shape something, out of an obscure urge, and with neither practice nor technique” are not really artists, because they are “not rewarded by any substantial aesthetic discovery.” His view reveals a pervasive bias and presumption that while the work of an incarcerated person may exhibit much pathos, cleverness, and skill, it is “spontaneous” (unasked for) and the work of a criminal, and therefore lacks the intention and intellection of the work of a trained artist.
Further implied is that the art of the law-abiding and educated artist is more worthy of praise and contemplation, as it is the product of a refined and beautiful mind, whereas the art of the prisoner, even if it is of great skill, is always in essence brutish and therefore unable to rise to the level of art.
French artist Jean Dubuffet challenged this view when, in the 1940s, he began lauding and collecting the work of amateur artists. He called it Art Brut (raw art) because the artists were indifferent to and often unaware of the tradition of high art, and therefore they were able to create something authentically personal, uncorrupted by the influence of fashions, trends, and markets. The examples of Art Brut Dubuffet privately collected are in many cases made by tinkerers who began making art late in life, but often the most intriguing and celebrated work was made by the mentally ill, the incarcerated, and those who claimed to have mystical visions.
Finally, I consulted Jacques Maritain, one of the foremost thinkers on art and Christianity. In his essay “Christian Art,” he argues that there is no such thing as Christian art, only Christian artists, people who must struggle to strike a balance between the work required to keep the faith and the work required to make art, which are so often at odds, and if they become out of balance can lead one or the other to suffer. Maritain writes: “If you make of your aesthetic an article of faith you would spoil your faith. If you were to make of your devotion a rule of artistic activity, or if you were to turn desire to edify into a method of your art, you would spoil your art.” I might add that when one comes to regard faith as a mere aesthetic, then faith becomes akin to “taste,” just another marker of individuality, rather than belief that unites one with others. Likewise, if the only impetus for making art is devotion and the desire to proselytize, then one’s art will lack the genius and newness that come from seeing God and the journey to faith play out in unexpected places and situations. Augustine wrote, “All is sacred except sin.”
With Prinzhorn, Dubuffet, and Maritain as competing guides, I approached the PFI exhibit with trepidation. What if the art was just terrible? What if I couldn’t get past the horrible crimes that I imagined had put these artists behind bars? But I had other misgivings too, concerns that art isn’t necessarily the best way to rehabilitate criminals, let alone lead them to salvation. As Maritain implies, pursuing a career in art exacerbates the naturally occurring solipsism in all of us.
When I arrive at the conference hotel in Toronto, my one scheduled interview is with Ron Nikkel, who runs PFI in Colson’s stead and who arranged for me to be here. My strategy, to the extent that I have one, is to wander around the conference Columbo-style, insinuating myself into conversations. But I quickly see how difficult this will be. PFI is a huge international organization, of which the art show is a tiny apostolate. Stumbling across someone who knows much about it will be a challenge. Stumbling across someone who speaks English will be a challenge.
At the breakfast buffet, I load up a plate of eggs, bacon, and fruit and wander among the tables trying to find a friendly face, angling for an invite to sit down. In the corner by the kitchen is a table of men in impressive suits sipping coffee, one of whom looks at me and smiles. “We’re about to have a meeting, but you can join us, if you like,” he says. The men come from Benin, Rwanda, and Malawi. I say I’m a writer covering the conference art exhibit, and they all nod and smile, though I sense some apprehension. The white man who invited me to sit says in a low voice that I have wandered into a meeting of the Centre for Peace and Prosperity, one of PFI’s many subcommittees. They are gathering to hear a proposal for a halfway house in Malawi. The conversation gets heated (How would the inmates be chosen for the pilot? What would happen if someone escaped?), and the white man stands up and motions me to follow him. He brings me to a tall, thin, bearded man, who turns out to be Norton Russell, the curator of the art exhibit.
Russell, more casual in dress and manner than the African men, says in an unmistakably Australian accent, “You need to meet Carlos Velasquez,” and leads me through the crowded hotel corridor, jammed with a procession of gray-bearded Orthodox priests and a bishop whose miter bobs above the heads of the crowd like the effigy of a saint in an Old World parade. We pass mocha-skinned women in bright orange and turquoise robes, coffee-black men in pinstriped suits and pastel ties. Everywhere a patois of English, French, and Spanish. Norton finally finds Velasquez sitting at a table inside one of the high-ceilinged conference rooms, eating breakfast. It is an awkward introduction. Norton speaks little Spanish and Carlos speaks little English, but somehow Norton communicates that I want an interview. He leaves me and Carlos staring and smiling at one another.
“Interpreter?” I say, looking around at the others eating with Velasquez. They look at one another and repeat, “Interpreter?” Velasquez gestures for me to follow him back out into the busy corridor and onto the escalator. As we ride up, I try to establish a rapport by showing him pictures of my children on my iPad. “Ah,” he says, “muy bonita.”
We have soon exhausted our vocabularies in the other’s language, and so we stand there staring at one another for a moment. Just when I think that the interview is a bust, Carlos grabs me by the arm and points to a woman. “Journalista,” he calls, pointing over his shoulder to me. She turns to me and says in perfect, uninflected English: “You’re a journalist?” She deliberates with Carlos in Spanish, then turns to me and says I should meet them for lunch in an hour.
There isn’t enough time to leave the hotel and explore Toronto, so I wander in and out of rows of tables selling copies of all of Chuck Colson and Ron Nikkel’s books, as well as books by evangelical thinkers on the Middle East, environmentalism, and how to lead a socially just life. Many of the national branches of PFI are selling self-published tracts and prison memoirs, native jewelry, coin purses made from reclaimed plastic, all by prisoners from their countries. The proceeds go directly to prisoners and their families. I buy a pink and green coin purse for my daughter and a ballpoint pen in an intricately beaded sheath.
As I make one last pass through the book fair before getting in line for the lunch buffet, a man sitting on a motorized scooter says, “Would you like a free book?” and places it in my hand—the oldest trick in salesmanship: get the product in the customer’s grip. I read the title: Captured to Run No More by Jim Cavanaugh. The cover depicts a man sitting on a bed in a jail cell with his head in his hands. I wait for the catch. He introduces himself as the author.
At fifteen, Cavanaugh elected to go to prison rather than return to the reform school where he had been sent after multiple petty crimes. He chose prison because at the reformatory he was regularly beaten and sexually abused. Prison seemed the lesser of the evils, and in the short-term it was, but, looking back, Cavanaugh understood that prison didn’t help him shed the anger he felt toward adults, and authority in general. It only helped him hone his rage, and find more deeply criminal outlets for it. He learned to crack safes. He became more thuggish—“I hurt a lot of people in bad ways physically,” he says, a look of regret on his face.
In prison, Cavanaugh suffered an aneurysm that left him partially paralyzed. Watching him sit there in the motorized scooter, grasping one of the two canes he uses to walk short distances, his knees at odd angles, I’m ready to forgive him for whatever it is he did to warrant the almost two decades of prison time he served. But in the next breath he tells me he killed a man in prison, and something inside me closes up, retreats.
After he was released, he felt there was little hope for a normal life. He wanted a family, but who would marry a crippled ex-con? A nurse, it turns out, who happened to work in the same hospital where he recovered from his aneurysm, and, ironically, was the daughter of a Royal Canadian Mountie. She sits right next to him looking at him with an expression of love and awe. I ask him how he turned his life around and became a writer. “Ernie Hollands,” he says. “God knew that I would listen to Ernie.” It was Ernie, a fellow prisoner released before Cavanaugh, who told him about Jesus. Hollands would visit Jim in prison and urge him to pray and accept Jesus into his life, which he eventually did. “I said a prayer of forgiveness and I felt a warmth that went through my body and that shook me up.”
Recounting his conversion, Jim becomes deeply contemplative, and recalls his friend Terry Southwind, a fellow inmate whose talent as an illustrator was legendary in the prison. Once, while serving time in solitary confinement, Southwind sketched a spot-on portrait from a copy of Cavanaugh’s mug shot. Cavanaugh, who was older than Southwind, bought him art supplies and encouraged him to apply to art school after he was released. Southwind didn’t apply to art school, but his talent got him a job in Vancouver illustrating Hallmark cards. Ultimately, though, life on the outside was too strange for Southwind, and he fell back into a life of crime.
Cavanaugh has known that art was a possible way out for him, too, an antidote to the guilt and shame that have plagued him. For over twenty years, he worked on his life story, dragging it out every once in a while, fiddling with it, then putting it away again because he couldn’t sustain the courage needed to confront the memories that would come to the surface.
I’ve been holding a copy of his book in my hand this whole time, so long that my hand has begun to sweat. Because he spent so much of his life in prison, it’s tempting to say that this represents his life’s work.
“Here,” he says, and gestures to his wife for more copies of the book, “give them to your students.”
Before I go he suddenly has a vivid memory. He remembers an artist from the nearby university coming to the prison to give lessons. “Light and darkness was the first lesson,” he says. “It had a calming effect.”
I cram all six copies of Captured to Run No More into my shoulder bag and join the long line forming for the lunch buffet.
I find Carlos and his interpreter right away. Carlos, now beaming and at ease, tells me the story of his conversion. His mother died when he was twelve, and his grieving father turned to alcohol to drown the pain. Around the same time, Carlos’s uncle was recruited by a powerful drug lord to help process cocaine. By the time Carlos turned fourteen, his whole family was involved in processing and distribution. He knew that what he was doing was wrong, but working for a cartel brought status—money, women, and a gun.
After nearly a decade in the cartel, married with a two-year-old, he was partying with some friends at the cocaine processing laboratory. Carlos had purchased a new rifle and he was proud of it. He was showing it off, brandishing it, when it discharged, wounding his young son. As Carlos sped down the winding mountain road toward the hospital he prayed that his son would live. He made promises about the kind of person he would be if God would just spare his son. His son survived; in fact, he made a full recovery, and Carlos vowed to turn his life over to God.
But his conversion was short-lived, and he was eventually arrested for cocaine trafficking and sentenced to time in one of the most notorious prisons in Columbia. One night, lying in his bunk, he had a dream in which he carved a clock with an eagle perched on top. In the morning, he found a block of wood and began carving what he’d seen. As a young boy, Carlos had shown some promise as a woodworker, but that was practically another lifetime.
Using a homemade chisel, he was able to reproduce the dream clock. It was so impressive that other inmates offered to buy it to give to their wives, but it also impressed a prison guard who confiscated it. So he carved another one, but that too was stolen from him, this time by one of the prison’s violent kingpins. And so he carved one last clock, only to have this one stolen by another inmate. Carlos fell into despair. His newfound faith was in tatters. His visions had not been mystical; they were just wishes, dreams. But that same night God spoke to him again in a dream, reassuring him that just as the blows of the chisel had transformed the raw wood into a beautiful clock, the persecution he was experiencing would transform him into a beautiful new creation.
At this point in the story, the interpreter places on the table what appears to be a dark block of wood the size of a coffee mug. Carlos picks up the wood, points to it, and says, “Before I knew God I was like this block of wood.” He turns the block to reveal a carving of a large hand cupping a child. “When God comes into our lives he changes us completely.” Carlos smiles and sets it in front of me, urging me to inspect it. I turn it over in my hand, running my finger over the smooth grain.
The interpreter asks, with a wry smile, “Did you hear about his sculpture?”
Norton Russell told me that one of Carlos’s pieces had won an award, so I cut her off: “Russell told me the good news.”
But that wasn’t what she was dying to tell me. As Carlos’s work came through customs, agents, apparently noticing that the country of origin was Columbia and suspecting that it was being used to smuggle drugs, broke open a large carving of a lion lying down with a lamb. “He stayed up all night before the exhibition gluing it back together,” she says. “You can’t even tell where the cracks are.”
Just before interviewing Kazimierz Pawlowski, a Polish artist from Warsaw, I find a copy of his book Spojrzeine Zza Krat…Na Wiare I Zycie (“Looking to faith…and life behind bars”) sitting on a table alongside reproductions of his paintings—portraits of Christ and the Madonna in what art historians often call a naïve or primitive style, and surrealistic images of sinister figures against swirling backgrounds.
The book, which features two dozen of his oil paintings and a handful of poems, is written mostly in Polish with some rough English translations here and there, so I skip around, skimming the English parts for anything I can use in my interview. I soon find a note from a priest vouching for Pawlowski’s conversion, calling his work “sacred surrealism.” I next find a critical introduction written by Andrzej Wojciechowski, a professor of art who sees in Pawlowski’s work the influence of Saint John of the Cross, who painted and wrote from prison, and whose sketch of Christ crucified influenced Salvador Dali’s Christ of Saint John of the Cross and Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ. He then alludes to an obscure passage from Jacques Maritain’s 1953 series of lectures, Creative Intuition and Poetic Knowledge, in which he attempts to recuperate surrealism from the Freudians. According to Maritain, Christian artists were surrealists insofar as they underwent a “spiritual night” during which there was a:
revelation both of the Self of the poet and of some particular flash of reality…bursting forth in its unforgettable individuality, but infinite in its meanings and echoing capacity—
To see a World in a Grain of Sand,
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower.
By this logic, Wojciechowski triumphantly concludes that Pawlowski’s work should not be seen as “sacred surrealism” but “sacred realism”—“the soul is more realistic than anything,” he writes.
When Pawlowski and his interpreter arrive, my head is swimming. Caught flat-footed, I began with routine questions about his past. He tells me that from adolescence he begged, borrowed, and stole to feed his addiction to alcohol and drugs. He stole from his dying mother. He attempted suicide with his own bootlaces. He had numerous religious epiphanies and made solemn promises to priests and homeless-shelter administrators that he would clean up his life. But it wasn’t until he was thirty-five and in jail that he finally gave his life over to Christ and began treatment for his addictions. He wasn’t like Carlos Velasquez who had shown artistic talent as a young boy; Kazimierz sees his talent as an artist as a gift from the Holy Spirit, an outpouring of grace triggered when he finally began leading a sober life.
He is nearly sixty, but looks much older. His light blue eyes are deep set and cloudy with cataracts. His hair and mustache are gray and wiry. His shoulders are stooped. He looks bone-tired. It’s clear when he speaks that art is not merely a hobby that had made prison less tedious; making art has worked a change in him. In 2003 he was honored by PFI for founding the Prayer and Sobriety Fellowship Ark, a prison ministry that helps addicts beat their addictions through conversation and prayer. When I ask him to describe his artistic process, he gives a very long answer, during which his interpreter, a bald man who bears a resemblance to Mussolini, stares at the floor with his head in hand, seemingly in pain. After a long delay, he looks up at me, raises his eyebrows, tosses his hand to the side and says, “You create with your heart.”
Kazimierz inscribes his book, blesses me and my future as an artist, and insists that I take a reproduction of one of his paintings. I pick up a large blue Madonna from the table and hold it up for him to see—“Medjugorje,” he says, his face lighting up.
Back in my room, I lay the print of Pawlowski’s painting on the bed, iron a shirt, and unpack all of Cavanaugh’s books from my shoulder bag. While I do this, Mary’s large sorrowful eyes seem to follow me. As I iron I practice my questions for Ron Nikkel out loud, questions building off of Maritain’s view of Christian artists. The feeling of being watched becomes so overwhelming that I roll up the painting and lean it against the wall.
Art from the Inside
The exhibit is not in the Sheraton, but in Campbell House, the oldest remaining building of the original town of York—present-day Toronto. Built in 1822 by Chief Justice William Campbell and his wife Hannah, it is now a museum dedicated to preserving Toronto history and culture. The house has been fully restored to its original condition and furnished with period furniture. The walls are hung with intaglio prints of King George and British aristocrats in powdered wigs, a dramatic oil painting of the Battle of Lake Erie, and stuffy portraits of Sir Campbell and his wife looking waxen and irritated.
Now, sharing the wall space with these mannered, academic works from the eighteenth and nineteenth century is a lighthouse , a portrait of a young girl whose outstretched hands reach for her father on the other side of prison bars. A kite soaring above a beach. Many prodigal embraces. Cages. Crabs. Serpents. Masks. Faithful reproductions of the Last Supper and numerous depictions of Jesus trudging toward Golgotha. Bloody crucifixions made by prisoners from all over the world (Belarus, Columbia, Canada, Portugal, Poland). The work of educated and trained artists, which one imagines was mostly commissioned, hangs side by side with work that no one asked for, and no would otherwise care to look at, if PFI hadn’t created this occasion for it.
When I enter the exhibit, I immediately begin looking for Carlos and Kazimierz’s work. I’m still nervous that I won’t like it, but I’m also concerned that my judgment has been clouded by what I know about these men. Their stories are so heart-wrenching, the arc of their lives so beautiful, that I feel like judging their art will be like disbelieving the sincerity of their conversions.
The first thing I discover is that Carlos Velasquez’s wooden sculpture of a lion lying down with a lamb, the one broken open by customs agents, is not the one that won second prize in the exhibition. His winning sculpture is of a shepherd boy standing next to a lion and a lamb [see Plate 6]. It sits on a side table against the wall, easily overlooked, whereas the reassembled sculpture sits in the middle of the room on what would have been Sir Campbell’s dining table. It’s as though the story of the sculpture has earned it this place of honor. I walk around the table, looking for signs of damage, but all I see is the subtle wavy grain of the wood.
Sitting on the same table, just inches away, is a birdcage. Inside perches a tiny person. I think of Prinzhorn; it seems so clearly (as he theorized) a crude symbol, an effigy of the inmate. But even if Velasquez’s lion were not sitting next to this sad birdcage, I would find it impressive. It’s larger than I imagined—not some bit of whittling he did while passing time in the yard. It shows ambition and skill, and it speaks of the relationship between his art and his faith. The sculpture seems to assert what I’ve been hearing all morning in my interviews: With God all things are possible.
Just behind the table, leaning against the wall, I recognize some of the oil paintings that I had seen in Kazimierz’s book [see Plate 7]. At first, I feel that my fears about judging the work are coming true. The paintings seem childish and sinister. Christ is wan and bedecked in the scariest crown of thorns I have ever seen; the backgrounds swirl, figures blur and morph in what seems a bad imitation of surrealism. It’s surreal for the sake of being surreal—it’s trippy.
But three of the four paintings reference a mask. A figure is either putting one on or taking one off, or the faces of the figures seem, like Picasso’s famous portrait of Gertrude Stein, mask-like. They are much different in person. The reproductions in his book told me that his style was surreal, the colors garish, the execution primitive, but standing before them, I sense that the work is a distillation of what he has been through.
V.S. Pritchett admonished: “It’s all in the art…you get no credit for living,” but noticing the masks in Pawlowski’s work, I feel that perhaps the intention of the artist should matter more. Without intention, without knowing that the art in the exhibit was created by inmates, I’m sure I would dismiss much of it as merely devotional.
But I don’t know what to make of what turns out to be one of my favorite paintings of the exhibit: a depiction of the moments just before the cross, with Jesus nailed to it, is raised above Calvary [see Plate 8]. Out from underneath the cross, in the vicinity of Jesus’s pierced side, chugs a steam locomotive, cowcatcher and all. The smokestack bellows light gray smoke, and inside the cloud of smoke, an American flag ripples in the wind. The mix of images creates such an individual vision of the crucifixion and its meaning to the painter—or anybody for that matter. There’s something kooky and kitschy about the combination, yet I find myself coming back to it again and again. Maybe this art is not for me. Maybe it’s not for anybody but the artist and, possibly, God.
The other piece I revisit is Crab, a diorama of a prison cell created by a group of ten inmates in a Portuguese prison using recycled materials [see Plates 9 and 10]. It is one of the few pieces accompanied by an artists’ statement:
Our work is an analogy with the first day in prison and the crab’s foot, walking behind. And the difference with the last day, when bars opened and hope and liberty, is like reborn.
The work consists of two pieces: a shoebox-sized diorama of a prison cell containing a bunk occupied by two sleeping inmates, and a smaller diorama depicting one of the prisoners from the first standing in front of the prison façade, now free.
The prisoners are replicas of the wooden, yarn-haired Melissa and Doug–brand dolls that my daughter plays with. They lie under sheets made from prison-issued facecloths. Pasted on the wall above the bunk are two thought clouds, one in Portuguese and one in English that reads:
First Night in Prison…
I see my life as the life of a crab…
The thoughts are meant to correspond to the woman in the top bunk, who upon closer inspection is not sleeping, but awake and crying inky-black tears.
The smaller diorama of the prison façade features this same woman, now smiling, standing outside the prison walls. A thought cloud pasted on the ground behind her reads:
Returning To Freedom…
I’m turning my life around!
This time, we’re moving forward…
The pathos of the narrative alone has me weak-kneed. The artists have pasted scraps of fabric, cut into cloud-like shapes, to cloth-covered squares of wood, creating skies that correspond to the mood of the prisoner. Above the first diorama there are two such squares, one depicting a day-lit sky, the second a gray, ominous night sky. This would all be cute and folksy, if it weren’t for the huge red crab looming like a menacing sun above the prison. In the second diorama, the crab is still there—a reminder, it seems, of the prisoner’s past—but now a yolk-yellow sun beams down, causing fields of flowers to grow.
Kafka famously wrote that art is the axe that we take to the frozen sea inside ourselves. The violence of this metaphor is apt. The men whose work populates this show—and they were mostly men—have done violence to others, to their families, and to themselves. Over time, violence, like all sin, has a deadening effect. We become like one on a death bed, senses dimming, intellect failing. We enter the permanent winter Lewis warned might come over Narnia. We live on the dark side of a moon stalled in its orbit. We are the living dead—animated, but cold and bent on satisfying our appetites.
PFI believes that art can help save souls. In the context of a prison ministry, art is effective therapy for helping criminals reflect on their past through the expression of the volatile emotions the incarcerated feel, while also visualizing their future.
Some art scholars believe that Outsider Art, whether by prisoners, the mentally ill, or simply those amateurs who realize their talent late in life, has been tremendously influential in saving the soul of modern art. Maurice Tuchman and Carol S. Eliel, editors of Parallel Visions, a groundbreaking study of Outsider Art’s impact on modern artists, write that the rise of Outsider Art gave permission to many mainstream artists to move away from the impersonal minimalism and abstraction that dominated post-World War II art, and turn toward work that was more personal and figural.
Beginning in the late forties with Dubuffet’s coining of the term Art Brut and beginning to collect, along with André Breton, work that fit into his definition, Outsider Art steadily attracted the interest of artists and eventually the public, leading to exhibitions at MOMA and the establishment of whole museums, like Baltimore’s Visionary Art Museum.
Writing in Parallel Visions, Eliel makes an even more startling claim: that the influence of Outsider Art is not merely stylistic, as we see so often in poets (Blake, Eliot, Ginsberg, for example), but it is “moral.” Twentieth-century mainstream artists, she writes, responded to outsiders because of their “sense of focus,” “intensity,” and “lack of guile.”
The work of outsiders was inspiring, according to ceramicist Andy Nasisse, because “the work came through the artist more than from them,” an ethic that had been bred out of modern art almost all together, and that made it possible for artists to be surprised by their work, which has previously been theoretical, cerebral, and over-determined.
“When people see prisoners they don’t see beauty,” Ron Nikkel tells me, when I finally meet him in his suite at the Sheraton. “It’s surprising to a lot of people. It’s a paradigm shift. Because it’s coming from prison it’s even more impressive. [It’s] not beauty created under ideal circumstances. They have no studios. Materials are limited in quality and quantity. But in the boredom and blackness of prison, people often find something within themselves.”
I am not satisfied with this answer, this vague Hollywood notion of an ineffable potential lying dormant in all people that will save us if we can just tap into it. So I put the question I have been wrangling with to Nikkel: Must the artist be a good person? “I don’t see it as a movement from not good to good,” he replies. “Art is a symbol of their huger for beauty and goodness and an ability to express it.”
Internally, my knee-jerk response is to quote Flannery O’Connor (quite out of context): “Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.” What about the discipline of craft, the movement from essence to presence, from the idea to the thing itself?
I kept these thoughts to myself, though, and I’m glad I did. I now realize that I was falling into the very trap Maritain warns Christian artists about: I was thinking of making a devotion of art, a sacrament that magically changes us. Art is not magic, Maritain reminds us. “There is a fundamental need of art in the human community.” It is needed not to populate the world with beauty, but because it leads us to consider that which is nobler and more beautiful than our imperfect selves.
Before I left the exhibit I wanted to get an interview with one of the curators. Norton Russell introduced me to Sue Ladd, an Australian whose son had work hanging in the show. For years, she says, she could not face the reality that her son was a convict. She simply avoided talking about him with friends, and especially when meeting people for the first time. But then her son took first prize in an exhibition sponsored by PFI in Australia. Instead of saying “my son, the convict,” she could say, “my son, the artist.”
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.