Prison art class provides hope

The Baltimore Sun

Inside Boston's Suffolk County House of Correction, the towering, 1,900-bed prison next to the Southeast Expressway, the scenery is as uninspiring as one would imagine: concrete-block walls, orange jumpsuits, guards with German shepherds.

But on a recent morning, in a narrow, windowless classroom, Doug Savory's thoughts moved beyond the walls around him. A tall, wiry inmate in a loose, pajama-like uniform, Savory looked peaceful as he stood over a worktable covered with scraps of handmade cotton paper. The collage he was making filled the page with layered colors - pink, red, and orange shapes that resembled a mask or a face.

"I overheard a conversation, someone talking about his mother," Savory, explained, gesturing at his paper as jazz singer Billie Holiday crooned softly on a boombox behind him. ''It influenced what I was doing - that's when I added these two blue pieces."

Around him, other inmates enrolled in the prison's art class carefully ripped colored paper and brushed the pieces with glue. ''How will I know when I'm finished?" one man asked.

Ready with a reassuring answer ("You will know") was the prisoners' teacher, Kirstie Tuffs-Kugler, a professional artist and mother with no previous teaching experience.

The class she runs here is intense and ambitious, demanding serious commitment from men locked up for drug possession, assault and other offenses - men who might be making license plates if they weren't sketching pastel landscapes. Before accepting inmates to the 15-week, 75-hour course, which meets daily and spans the history of 20th-century art, Tuffs-Kugler interviews each one to probe his motivations.

"She looked at me very seriously, like it was a job interview," said Prince Charles, 24, an inmate who said he took community college classes before being jailed on a probation violation. ''She was stern about it. She said, 'Why should I accept you?' I was like, 'Is she kidding?' But then I saw how serious the class was."

Tuffs-Kugler does not go easy on her students, and she has the dropout rate to prove it. Of the 20 inmates who enrolled in the first session of her class last spring, only eight made it to the final exhibition, when the proud artists displayed their work in the corridor outside the classroom and celebrated with cherries and cupcakes at a reception attended by prison staff members.

"I have told them, 'I don't feel sorry for you, and I'm not going to underestimate your intelligence,'" said Tuffs-Kugler, 33, who has a master's degree in painting from the Winchester School of Art in Winchester, England. ''I only feel sorry for people who are a lost cause, and they are not."

Prison leaders are so impressed with the students' progress that they have started talking with local art colleges, seeking opportunities for the most ambitious inmates to audit classes or pursue scholarships after they serve their time.

Suffolk County Sheriff Andrea J. Cabral said the art course is part of a broader effort to prevent inmates from committing offenses after they are released by developing their skills, building their confidence and showing them a way to lead productive lives.

"If you're in and out of jail a lot, it has an impact on your self-esteem, and you think this is what your life will be," she said. ''They need to have something worth fighting for and worth working hard at, so they can move past what they've been to something better."

Other classes at the prison include black studies, poetry, psychology, and raising children. Prisons elsewhere in the state also offer classes, but few, if any, have taught art history in a comprehensive way or used it as a context for formal instruction in painting.

Suffolk County officials have taken the experiment beyond the classroom, establishing a quarterly magazine, Not Beyond Hope, to showcase art and poetry produced by inmates. Publishing their work is a way to recognize them for ''channeling their energy into productive things," said Cabral.

Support for the project lives in unexpected places. A spokesman for Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson, who courted controversy by establishing chain gangs in the 1990s, applauded the art class and said painting was taught at the Dartmouth House of Correction until recently. Inmates at the prison have also sung in a choir.

Janet Fine, the director of the Massachusetts Office for Victim Assistance, said rigorous programs that educate inmates and guide them toward productive lives have direct, positive effects on public safety.

At the Suffolk County prison, where the average sentence is 14 months, Tuffs-Kugler teaches two one-hour classes every morning, back to back. She said she does not ask her students about the crimes they committed. She demands that they greet her politely, take care of their art supplies, and respect one another during critiques. If they sleep in class or swear, she sends them back to their cells.

To start each week, she lectures and shows slides and documentaries. The students then draw on those lessons to create their own art, and discuss it during critiques. She hands out photocopies each week as assigned reading and tests the students on each unit they complete. The course covers impressionism, cubism, dadaism, surrealism, abstract expressionism, pop art, minimalism, performance art, conceptual art and contemporary artists.

Other inmates sometimes taunt the artists, but many are intrigued, said Michael Duff, an inmate in the class who is serving time for assault. Duff, 60, who said he ran an East Boston art gallery and published three books of poetry before his incarceration, said prisoners smuggle poems to him, seeking feedback.

"These guys go back to their units and talk about painting," he said. "Some of them have never produced anything before, and this allows them to see a part of themselves they've never seen. In Picasso's blue period, they see their blue period and realize they're not alone. ... It's like stumbling on an oasis in the desert."

During a recent class, the inmates were quiet and focused, some bent low over worktables, others consulting art books. The teacher roamed among them answering questions, her fingers covered with rings, her speech seasoned with the accent of her Colombian upbringing.

Tyron Douglas, 21, described himself as a ''pencil artist" rather than a painter, but said he had been inspired by a lesson on Picasso.

"Picasso wasn't scared to express himself," said Douglas, who was nearly finished serving two years for a drug offense. ''A lot of people worry about what people think, and he didn't - he just went at it. He let himself live through his art."

For some students, the freedom to make decisions on canvas - and the duty to explain them in critiques - is a model for how to live responsibly. "When someone asks me why I did that, and I can tell them, it helps me reflect and analyze myself," said Savory, 51. ''It helps you put yourself back in perspective, in society, and see where you can fit."

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