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Teaching Behind Bars
Teaching in prison isn’t frightening. It’s a chance to help inmates heal—and it’s full of surprises. By Leslie Milk
Mia Choumenkovitch works with DC-jail inmates Brice White and Gregory Pierson. Photograph by Matthew Worden.
Comments () | Published April 1, 2010

Mia Choumenkovitch isn’t someone you’d expect to find behind bars. But for 30 years she’s spent a lot of time in area prisons, teaching the fine points of shape and shadow while surrounded by inmates who tower over her.

Choumenkovitch was born in what was Yugoslavia and showed a talent for art as a child. Her father was in the diplomatic service; when he was ambassador to Turkey, her mother insisted that Mia start studying art seriously. The family moved to Washington in the 1950s, but Mia returned to Europe to study painting and drawing in France. She became interested in African art when she went to work for Operation Crossroads Africa, a program that enables young Americans to work on community development for a summer. While heading the program in French-speaking African countries, Choumenkovitch was asked by the government of Ivory Coast to research the art of one of the country’s ethnic groups. That meant living in a village in the bush.

After returning to Washington in the 1970s, Choumenkovitch worked for the American University Foreign Area Studies program. Later she coordinated volunteers for a drug-prevention program in DC’s Anacostia. Youngsters would come into the office when they should have been in school. When she asked about their parents, she often got the same answer: Mom is at work, Dad is at Lorton.

When a friend asked if she’d teach a class at Lorton—the DC prison in Virginia—Choumenkovitch agreed only to design a program that could be turned over to the corrections department. She met with administrators, they told inmates that an art teacher was coming, and she found herself in a classroom with 12 men waiting for her instruction. She’s been teaching at Lorton, at DC’s youth detention center, and in DC jail ever since.

In the classroom, Choumenkovitch is in constant motion. She looks over the shoulders of students, grabs a pencil to demonstrate a technique, turns objects this way and that to show perspectives. Her students call her by her first name but treat her with respect. She does the same.

“She’s real patient,” an inmate says. “This is a place where there isn’t much patience.”

A guard on a maximum-security unit told her that on the days her class was scheduled to begin at 8:30 am, men would be up and dressed by 6.

Choumenkovitch provides the materials; in the beginning, that meant scrounging. The Lorton Art Program is now incorporated as a charitable organization and has received funding from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities. But keeping it solvent isn’t easy. She says: “Prisons are gentle compared with fundraising.”

Her textbooks are the catalogs friends pass along from Christie’s auction house as well as magazines. She does have to censor her texts—no nudes are allowed in prison.

In 2007, Choumenkovitch received the Mayor’s Arts Award in DC. But for her the best recognition comes from seeing student work displayed in galleries and sold to art lovers. At a show at the Joan Hisaoka Healing Arts Gallery in DC, paintings and drawings by inmates have sold for $200 to $450.

A few of Choumenkovitch’s protégés have pursued art after their release. One graduates next month from the San Francisco Art Institute.

Some of her best students are repeat offenders. Deangelo Campbell started studying with her more than 20 years ago as a juvenile in an Occoquan facility. He’s now in the DC jail’s Re-Entry Unit, with fewer than 120 days before he’s released, and has become an accomplished artist.

“Miss Mia taught me how to sketch, to shade, to use charcoal and pastels,” Campbell says. “In my cell, I get worried about my kids, my father who’s sick. I pick up a pencil and paper and I draw. It humbles me. It keeps me peaceful.”

Choumenkovitch, who lives in Georgetown, says that nothing in her experience prepared her for teaching behind bars. “It’s another world,” she says. “A world I wouldn’t trade for anything.”

What were your first classes like?

I told the prison officials I couldn’t have more than 12 men. When I saw the men walking in, they looked like they were six feet, seven feet, eight feet tall. They walked in, black as night, as silent as a mountain. They looked at me: What now?

I brought only papers, pencils, erasers. I tried to explain visual art, and I realized that they were getting very bored with me—it didn’t take more than five minutes. So I turned around, and there was a plastic pot on the windowsill with a dead plant—maybe three twigs. I put it on the table and said, “Now we draw that.” I told them what to look for—the shape, the form.

The second class, I brought apples. They thought circles would be easy to do, and then they found out circles are the hardest. I showed them that you don’t just draw with the fingers; you use your shoulders, your elbows, your hands. They had to try it to believe me. There was a lot of anxiety, but they became interested. When I left, I asked, “What do you want to have next week?” They asked for flowers.

Those 12 men stayed until the end of the classes. Word went around, and more wanted to get into the classes.

Were you afraid?

Never. I felt I was the only safe one. I have developed relationships of trust with my students. At Lorton, they weren’t allowed to keep work in their cells. They would say, “You keep it.” One of my students asked me to hold the money for him when his work was sold. Another time, I delivered a painting to the intensive-care unit for an inmate’s mother, who was dying.

Do you have a problem communicating with inmates?

My accent fascinates some of them: “You ain’t like something I’ve seen before.” So I bring in maps of the world to show where I’m from, and I tell them, “You can find yourself on it.” They all want to see.

Sometimes they have a hard time communicating with me. In one class, I asked a man, “What are you thinking about for the background?” And he mumbled. The next time I asked, he nodded. Then one of the other men told me, “He doesn’t know what ‘background’ means.” In a class for juveniles, we made cards to send to their mothers, and some of them couldn’t spell “mother.”

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Posted at 05:00 PM/ET, 04/01/2010 RSS | Print | Permalink | Comments () | Washingtonian.com Articles