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.