An Outsider on the Inside at Riverside Correctional Facility, part 2

Post by Ann Northrup

[This is part two of a two-part post that began Monday, Feb. 23 about artist Ann Northrup‘s experience teaching art to prisoners and creating a mural with them at Riverside Correctional Facility].

The 16-week class I taught [at Riverside Correctional Facility] was similar to the drawing class I teach at Philadelphia University, though it had a mural-painting aspect also. We began with copies from master drawings and photos. This was a major hit with inmates, not least because it involved homework, thus providing something absorbing to do in off-hours. They began demanding more and more homework, especially on the weekend.

20-RCF Class Sneaker
RCF Class Sneaker; all pictures provided to us by Ann Northrup

We proceeded with still life in perspective, self-portraits, and flower painting, using a calligraphic Asian style emphasizing brushwork and color mixing. One woman commented, “It was a lot of fun and very hard. I really had to concentrate. I learned things I never knew how to do.”

After this, we began projecting & painting sections from the mural onto special non-woven cloth. The inmates created their own paint-by-number sets, drawing the shapes, mixing the paint, & creating 6 large portrait paintings 5×6’ each, to be mounted on the outside mural wall. We won over our dubious on-looker-guards, one of whom had initially commented “That looks like a monster!”

23-RCF Mural Portrait Painting
Mural Portrait Painting

By the time we finished the portraits it was May, and high time to begin the outdoor mural. Six of the women were classifiable to go outside with me and paint the bottom 8 feet or so of the mural, or whatever they could reach from the ground. It was incumbent on me (because of the expense) to make use of my high-reach truck and paint the top of the mural (72 feet up) first. I would bring the inmates their supplies in the morning, and after a short chat, go up top. The inmates did all the work at the bottom. They put on the sealer and primer, gridded the wall,, and put up the drawing, as well as doing all the painting. At first cheating & bossing each other, I saw a marked change in behavior as they began to realize what an opportunity it is to have a challenging piece of work to do. No longer students, they worked hard to be good assistants, make sure we were in compliance with prison regulations, and generally make everything go well (great job training). As some were discharged and new people were assigned to the project, who had not had the drawing class, some of the old hands took it upon themselves to orient, teach, and encourage. The fact that they were highly visible to staff and visitors, and clearly independent & skillful, was empowering.

One woman became kind of a special friend. She commented on my evaluation sheet: “The best is the teacher. She’s very caring, patient, and gives us a lot of support. The worst is when it ends!” She said that she had begun trying to help and advise the other girls. “I learned that patience can take you a long way, and to never give up. We can learn from mistakes.” I was able to hire this same woman on the outside a year later, on my “Heart of Kensington” mural. For a short time, she taught women and children the mural-making process and how to mix color and paint, as I had taught her. She’s back inside for now, though.

18A-Commissioner Giorla w Jane Golden & MAP Re-entry Program at Open Door mural dedication
Commissioner Giorla with Jane Golden & MAP Re-entry Program at Open Door mural dedication

The prison project has forced me to rethink things I took for granted. My attitudes keep shifting as I see more of the people & the art that make their way out with the support of the Mural Arts Program. We all know how bad things are for the disadvantaged of our society, & on some level we have personally experienced the destructive possibilities of people’s negative assumptions, but we don’t always credit how much nurturing it took for each of us to be who we are. As my again-imprisoned friend mused, “I wonder what my life would have been like if you had been my mother.

7-Dog on a Hill by Freddie Rodriguez Graterford
Freddie Rodriguez, Dog on a Hill. Rodriguez created this work in the art classes inside Graterford Prison

I am just beginning a new mural project at Independence Charter School, run by MAP’s Re-entry Program office and funded by the Violette De Mazia Foundation, whose Barnes Foundation-trained teachers run art classes inside Graterford Prison. You can see the results of these classes and others run by the Mural Arts Program in an exhibit called “Outsider Art from the Inside”. Curated by Brian Campbell, it can be seen at the Thomas Eakins House, 1729 Mount Vernon Street, until March 27, 2009. There will be a discussion today, Thursday, March 27th from 5-7 PM. About half of the work is for sale, and the inmates have decided to donate their proceeds to the MAP art supply fund. Prices are low, but profits can add up. One ex-offender I met told me that when he left prison he had a nest-egg of $5,000 from the sale of his artwork.

This is part two of a two-part story. Here’s part one.

See more work by prisoner artists
Outsiders Art from the Inside

to Mar. 27
Lincoln Financial Mural Arts Center
Thomas Eakins House
1727-29 Mount Vernon Street
Discussion today is 5 – 7 p.m. also at the Eakins House.

–Ann Northrup is an artist, teacher, muralist and contributor to Artblog. See her new Mississippi River paintings in her upcoming show at Cerulean Arts opening tomorrow, Friday, Feb. 27.