Community-based Art Prison Arts Collective
Community-based Art Prison Arts Collective
Community-based Art Prison Arts Collective
Voices of Change: Part 1
March 1, 2016
CBA Prison Arts Collective (Teaching Artists)
In 2011, as part of a new Service Learning class, I supported students in facilitating weekly art classes at two local sites with limited access to art; in just three years, this work has evolved into a collective initiative, Community-based Art (CBA), in which dozens of students, alumni, and volunteers facilitate weekly art programming throughout the local community at multiple sites including youth shelters, low income senior housing, and three California state prisons. I have been involved in art and social justice for as long as I can remember and yet this deeply rewarding and inspiring project is the most authentically collaborative one that I have had the pleasure to nurture and participate in throughout my career. Because of the interest from all in developing our work in prisons, and because of the special needs of working in this particular setting, we developed a subset of our work called the Prison Arts Collective. To share this work, we have collated some of the writing about it from our teaching artists (Part 1) and participants (Part 2) to collectively tell the story of the CBA Prison Arts Collective.
Everyone who I tell about my position as a teaching artists at the California Institution for Men (CIM), a state prison in Chino, asks, "So how is that?" It's an honest question with a voyeuristic undertone. People focus on the negative things that my students might have been involved in, often lifetimes ago, rather than the fact that these individuals are humans trying to contribute to the ongoing dialogue of artistic practice. I answer these questions by saying that, once you get past the institutional trappings of the environment, the alchemy of art performs as it does in any other setting. The students open up and engage the subject matter presented to them with the same voraciousness that I remember from my first experiences with art.
Their willingness to transcend their environment in the pursuit of their creative endeavors is as inspiring an interaction as I've ever encountered throughout my artistic career. My first group of students was just that, the first group of people I have been afforded the opportunity to artistically influence. When our classes are in session, these students are collaborators and peers in an artistic dialogue, not inmates that I teach. They have given me as much in the way of wisdom and personal evolution as I could ever expect to offer them. We are students of one another, and this interaction gives me hope in the future of art in a time in my own career in which I am being indoctrinated with considerations of commodification and gallery representation. My experiences in prison have, perhaps ironically, been some of the most liberating experiences I have been afforded by my involvement with art to date.
The first time that I taught at the California Institution for Women (CIW), a prison in Chino, I was beyond nervous. I was filled with anxiety and didn't know what to expect. Seeing the participants in the auditorium, helping put up tables and arrange chairs and greeting us as we entered, made me feel more at ease. As I began teaching and talking with participants, I realized so much. They told me how lucky they were to be in this class, how the opportunity to relax and enjoy themselves with a peaceful activity like making art gave them an outlet to escape and feel free. Some had hopes of expanding their skills and growing their knowledge.
Once we began, I saw the the participants were willing to try new ideas, ask questions, and receive feedback. At one point, I was demonstrating how to layer tissue paper in a collage technique. The participants were really engaged and absorbed what I was showing them. It was at this very moment, through teaching, that I realized that this what I wanted to do forever. For some time, I have rethought my career path, unsure of myself and my abilities, and at that moment in the class in the auditorium of the prison, all the doubts and confusion went away. And I am just as thankful for the participants being here as they are for the class.
Before teaching at the California Institution for Men (CIM) in Chino, I didn’t plan on becoming a teacher. I think it is important—not only to share with others the healing properties of art making—but also to know how to communicate effectively. I know from my education what I’ve gained from professors and mentors and can appreciate the impact this can have on those that need it. The individuals in underserved populations that I have worked with, specifically those that are incarcerated, are eager to learn and find art to be as meaningful as I do. They inspire me with their humanity, enthusiasm, and thirst for growth and knowledge. I couldn’t ask for better students; in class, they are willing to be expressive and vulnerable, even in a situation and context where that is very difficult. Teaching with CBA at CIM has helped me grow as an artist and has allowed me to provide a positive outlet and leader for others.
Innovation and Support
Teaching at the California Institution for Women (CIW) has had a tremendous impact on my education and has reinforced many of my ideas about accessibility and inequality within art and the importance of Art Education. Working with my group of participants at CIW was an incredible breath of fresh air that I looked forward to every week. Each session was a time when participants learned, but I learned from them as well. I left filled with a deep sense of gratitude for the various forms of choice and freedom that we all experience in our daily lives.
The classes I have taught at CIW transcend the politics of conventional University learning in that there is no looming cloud of entitlement and no hierarchy; rather, there is a true sense of intersubjectivity between educator and learner. I encourage every student’s voice to shine and be heard. My participants never miss a chance to thank me and express their gratitude for our program. Furthermore, my classes at CIW have truly been a place for healing, reflection, and abundant creativity, which I feel are important elements to creating successful work. My participants have all been incredibly innovative, humble, driven, and eager to make work. Throughout, I felt that there was no emphasis placed on competition, but rather on support.
I have never in my life seen artists utilize such dwindling resources to make such beautiful artwork. In the prison industrial complex, every resource is a tool. I have watched participants utilize everything rom floor polish, Kotex, toilet paper, and scraps of discarded paper to create pieces of art that are complex, resolved, and beautiful. Every resource is seen as precious, as it should be, though this is not often the case in the "outside" world. This kind of creative innovation and support is inspiring.
During my last class session, I was incredibly moved as I decided that we move away from our desks for the first part of class and sit in a tight circular formation in the center of the auditorium. We had just finished drawing mandalas and writing haiku and I wanted everyone to be able to share their writing and artwork with the full group. This is often hard with large industrial fans blaring and some of the background noise. In the circle, meant to symbolize the center of the mandala, we all listened as each participant presented her work with pride, courage, and vulnerability. For the next half hour, a succession of amazingly deep, complex, and honest narratives poured from the students’ writing, conversation, and work.
— Matt McMilon
Annie Buckley is an interdisciplinary artist, writer, editor, and curator. Together with students at California State University, San Bernardino (CSUSB), she began Community-based Art (CBA) which has evolved a subset called the Prison Arts Collective. Since 2012, she has been honored to oversee this growing collaborative initiative fusing art and activism. Annie is also an associate professor of Visual Studies at CSUSB and the co-editor of Radical Actions.
Bee Wilkie is an artist living and working outside of Los Angeles. Wilkie began and continues to lead a critique class with CBA at the men’s prison in Chino for the past two years.
Christina Quevedo will graduate with a degree in Visual Studies from CSUSB in 2016. She helped to start CBA's program at the women's prison and is currently Site Lead for the weekly program at the men's prison in Chino. She is also a Research Assistant on Radical Actions.
Heather Roessler received a dual BA in Psychology and Studio Art (2015) and is currently in the MFA program at CSUSB. Heather has worked with CBA, teaching and assisting art classes at the men’s prison in Chino for a year and a half as well as at Our House (a shelter for youth) and EngAGE (low-income senior housing).
Matthew McMilon an interdisciplinary artist and MFA candidate at California State University, San Bernardino. He is currently a Teaching Artist and Site Lead with CBA at Our House and was one of the first teachers in the CBA Prison Arts Collective at the women’s prison in Chino.
For writing by participants at the California Institution for Men (CIM), please see Part 2.