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Be it canvas or garbage, resourcefulness is key in prison art. Now, you can buy it

There will be just one thing missing from an art auction at America’s Car Museum on Saturday. The artists.

The 50 or so men and women represented in “Unguarded: Incarcerated Artists” won’t be able to see their art sold because they are inmates in the state correctional system.

“You have some lifers, folks who are never coming home,” said Bates Technical College educator Chris Hansen. “But you also have some who are going to be home very shortly.”

In either case, the art forms a bridge between prison life and the outside world, he said.

“This humanizes the folks who are coming home,” Hansen said. He works with incarcerated students as part of his job. “They have feelings, emotions, expression, talents.”

The main goal of the auction isn’t to boost inmate self-esteem — it’s to generate funds for the YWCA.

Almost 200 art works and 100 pieces of jewelry make up the auction. They include paintings, sculpture, wood, bead work and other media.

“There’s a story behind this art,” said Karen Dhaliwal, development director for Freedom Project, a non-profit that helps people transition out of prison. “Each piece is someone’s life.”

Some of the art could pass as Thomas Kinkade paintings. One shows an idealized leafy landscape with a country church and rainbow.

Others represent the harsh lives some inmates led before incarceration.

A black ink drawing evokes a soggy night as a man feeds a dog under a street light.

“Only one bite left,” the inscription in the drawing says. “But at least we’re sharing it.”

Humble beginnings

The auction marks the second for the ad hoc group that organizes them. The first began when two Cedar Creek Corrections Center (CCCC) inmates wanted to help the victims of hurricanes in Texas and Puerto Rico in 2018.

The two inmates/artists learned they weren’t able to sell their art within the prison system, per Department of Corrections policies, Hansen said. So, they looked for a way to sell it in the outside world.

“It started with this small idea that we were going to have an art auction inside of CCCC in Little Rock and it just kind of blew up,” Hansen said. As more inmates and staff heard about the idea, enthusiasm grew.

Eventually, it reached the Community Partnership for Transition Solutions, a coalition of public agencies that works on transitioning prisoners to the outside world.

That auction in 2018 raised $12,000 for the American Red Cross. This year’s proceeds will go to the YWCAs of Pierce, King, Kitsap and Snohomish counties to help fund their emergency shelter and domestic violence programs.

Inmates at 11 adult corrections facilities and Remann Hall, Pierce County’s juvenile court, made art and jewelry for the 2020 auction.

“The artists are telling their stories,” Dhaliwal said. “They’re able to create, to express, to show what that second chance really looks like.”

Events like the art auction help bridge the gulf between inmate and society at large, she said. It aids prisoners who will soon transition beyond prison fences.

“We’re helping people come back into community,” she said.

Some of the inmates who had art in the 2018 auction are now free and will attend this year’s event, Dhaliwal said.

“It gives them a chance to give back to the world at large because they don’t have that opportunity while they’re there as much as we would like,” Hansen said.

“Prison has a lot of discipline,” Dhaliwal said. “But prison is also an opportunity to get your stuff together and get your life together and do better.”

Inmate art

Jessica Means, a former inmate herself, sees in the art memories of and a longing for the outside world.

“The life you are experiencing on the inside is devoid of art,” Means said.

Means served on the organizing committee. She’s now co-director of New Connections, a re-entry program started by the Rev. Bill Bichsel.

Most of the art was made for the event. Excited by 2018’s auction, some inmates have been working on art for the past year, Dhaliwal said.

Other pieces come from the inmates’ cells — work they might have been holding on to for years.

The pieces are not anonymous. Most of the work is signed and comes with an artist statement.

“They spend quite a bit of time on the artist statement,” Hansen said.

The art is made during inmates’ free time and with supplies they have to purchase. Department of Corrections supplies no material or funds.

Like many prisoners, the artists represented in “Unguarded” are a resourceful lot. They use media most artists would never consider.

“Whatever they can get their hands on,” Hansen said. In 2018, an inmate made a replica of the USS Arizona out of Cheez-It boxes.

“It had working turrets,” he said.

For 2020, a 9-inch motorcycle made from paper lollipop sticks and other garbage will be auctioned. Another resourceful artist created a cigar box complete with drawers and a lid that uses paper hinges.

Some artists who are supported by family members can purchase canvas, beads, paints and other supplies.

Native American inmates are well represented in the auction with several pieces of intricate bead work.

The jewelry in the show includes earrings, necklaces and bracelets. They may look like something you’d find in a boutique but their origins are far different.

Copper bracelets came from leftover pipe parts which were laboriously hammered together under watchful eyes.

“Those are done under supervision,” Hansen said. “Tools have to be checked out and checked in. There’s plenty of security.”

‘Unguarded: Incarcerated Artists’

When: 6-8:30 p.m. Saturday

Where: America’s Car Museum, 2702 East D Street, Tacoma

Tickets: $10

Auctions: Silent, live and buy it now

Information: give.wa.gov/cfd/2020-unguarded

Craig Sailor has worked for The News Tribune for 20 years as a reporter, editor and photographer. He previously worked at The Olympian and at other newspapers in Nevada and California.
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