Prisoners’ humanity shines through art

KATELYN HIBBARD/Sun-Gazette Depending on the facility, arts and crafts materials can be extremely limited. Pictured, an inmate used a handkerchief and pens to create his art. Other non-traditional mediums the incarcerated use include candy, toilet paper, toothpaste, food and food packaging, and more.

Picture this abstract drawing:

It’s brightly colored with blues, reds and yellows. At the bottom, a blonde woman is shown behind jailhouse bars. There are packs of Kool cigarettes, Super Long, depicted near a big, red lighter and a speckled ashtray.

At the top of the page is a doll dressed in blue, with dark hair and a crucifix around her neck. On her chest is a vibrant red heart.

“The doll still has a heart, despite the crimes she might be guilty of,” Lenora Scott, a prisoner who drew the piece titled “Prison Life” in 1985, once told her teacher, Phyllis Kornfeld.

Scott and many other prisoners throughout the country are finding a way of life behind bars through art, Kornfeld, author of “Cellblock Visions: Prison Art in America,” told her audience during a presentation at the Mary L. Welch Honors Hall at Lycoming College on Wednesday evening.

Kornfeld has taught and facilitated art in 18 prisons from Oklahoma to Massachusetts and beyond over the past 33 years. She has taught incarcerated men and women lodged in everything from minimum security to death row, she said.

“It’s very important to do this kind of program for incarcerated people,” she said. “My part of the battle is to try to change people’s way of thinking so they don’t re-offend.”

A vast majority of the inmates Kornfeld taught had never attempted art prior to their incarceration, except for in childhood, she said. But she found many of her students took to it immediately. Artwork became an important part of their lives in one way or another.

Some use it as a way to make a living.

“Everyone in prison is either making art or buying it,” Kornfeld said. “Prison is a thriving market place for art. It isn’t like the movies where the toughest, meanest guys are in charge.”

Inmates have what is called a commissary account, which allows them to pay for extra items they use in prison. Some prisoners may join a work-release program and make money that way, or loved ones might put money into their accounts.

But artwork can also be used as commissary through a bartering system. For example, an inmate might receive a drawing in exchange for a case of soda, or whatever other extras the prison’s store might have.

They also use their art to keep up communications with their friends and families, creating pieces that can be mailed out, such as portraits.

But the art made in prisons includes more than just drawings and paintings.

Sculptures, shoes, purses and frames can also be created.

Kornfeld provided her audience with photos of the different things her students have created over the years. Picture frames made from potato chip bags, baby shoes built from ramen noodle packaging and topped with poms made out of the thread from unraveled socks, sculptures made from carved soap or papier mache-like toilet paper, and more made people in the crowd gasp in awe.

“The work that I’m showing you is completely intuitive,” she said. Kornfeld explained she never taught her students formal art concepts, such as color theory.

“‘If you care all that you can, the work will be beautiful,'” she told her students. “And it was always true.”