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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.

Mia Choumenkovitch works with DC-jail inmates Brice White and Gregory Pierson. Photograph by Matthew Worden.

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.”

Many of your students lack basic education, yet you teach the history of art. Why?

You can’t teach art without the history of art. I start with cave drawings and explain that we wouldn’t know anything about that time if we didn’t see this. Rembrandt is easy to understand. When we get to Turner and El Greco, it is harder. Reality is there, but it’s not there. With the Impressionists, I have to explain that you need to stand back to see it.

It is like teaching the basics of drawing. I talk about perspectives. Anatomy is important when you teach structure. I don’t expect them to remember it all, but there’s a little reel in back of the head and when they need it, it will be there.

Have you also taught women in prison?

Yes, but it is very different. Men are the same whether they are on Wall Street or in prison. Each man is an island. They communicate, but they are alone. The women share. They work together.

What surprises you about your students?

Many of the men have overcome so much in their lives. A lot of them have had trouble with drugs, but I see a great deal of character and values: You don’t complain. You don’t blame somebody else.

Are you surprised by the caliber of the work your classes create?

Not anymore. There is a fantastic well of talent among African-Americans that we’ve never paid attention to. It’s just a question of opening that window to let the light in, and the talent comes out.

Why does art matter for inmates?

Prison is concrete and pain. Whatever you can bring into that place is humanizing. Art is a way to express your inner self—what is painful, shameful, locked in us all. Sometimes it goes so deep that they shut it off for fear they will lose their identity. These guys have built walls around themselves. There are feelings they can’t express, but they can speak through art. We create a lot of cards—it’s a way for them to reach out to others.

Is this good even when the emotions are negative?

Art heals. When you are in a box, in a cage, what you have is pain and anger. But art liberates. It heals the soul. But you have to keep that creative space open. You have to keep feeding that space.

Are you ever tempted to just devote yourself to your own painting?

If you are going to work with inmates, you can’t stop and start. That’s the pattern of their lives—they’ve been left by mothers, fathers, the community.

Painting is lonely work. I feel such unconditional love here.

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