Beyond the Blue: Artwork and Writing from the Prison Arts Collective

This book is a catalog produced in conjunction with an exhibition of artwork created in California prisons. I attended an opening of this traveling exhibition as well as a panel discussion with former participants, teaching artists, and the deputy director of the Prison Arts Collective (PAC). This book is atypical of those normally featured on this site, but I feel it deserves some attention because it presents a perspective from a corner of humanity where voices are normally out of earshot, which may offer some insights into the bigger picture of some of society’s toughest challenges.

I will start with excerpts from the book before making some of my own observations.

PAC founder and director Annie Buckley writes, “The impetus of our exhibition comes directly from the artists, who have asked us since we began art programs in prisons if we could help to show their work in the community. For them, art is not only a means of communication but very profoundly an avenue to freedom, a way to share and amplify their voice, their personhood.”

Justin Hong, Light at the End, 2017, oil on panel, 10″ x 8″

“We aim to challenge the otherness and invisibility so frequently attributed to artists who are incarcerated and marginalized.” PAC works in conjunction with San Diego State University, CSU San Bernardino, and CSU Fresno to provide programs at seven correctional institutions.

Stan Hunter writes, “Art for me is so much more than putting brush to canvas; it’s about connecting with others and developing a sense of belonging. It’s about learning to express myself emotionally, artistically, and vocally as well as to listen to others in a more meaningful way. I was incarcerated for 30 years and my life really began changing and evolving when I felt encouragement and support from others through the arts. I finally felt connected and that I had a purpose. Art is about being part of something bigger than ourselves. It was the feeling that others ‘believed’ in me that gave me hope. I want to give that to others.”  Stan is now a Lead Teaching Artist with PAC.

Stan Hunter, Cycle of Violence, 2018, Acrylic on canvas, 24″x30″

Ella Turenne writes, “Collaboration requires a number of things… We must be willing to do some deep listening, to really hear what people have to say and to see them for who they are. We must be able to suspend judgment and navigate with positive intent. We must commit to valuing the relationship between each person in the collaborative environment over the need to correct or make a point.”

“In our moments of creation, we have the privilege of building a community. We are able to put forth a piece of ourselves and have another individual in the group add to it. We are able to negotiate ideas and feelings and expression; all this contributes to a greater understanding of ourselves and the people around us. That kind of insight is something that is missing in our world at the moment.”

A paper shoe constructed as a component in a collaborative artwork. California Institution for Women, 2017.

Mark Taylor writes, “When I saw Kitiona Paepule’s Doing Time with Papa. I was overcome with emotion… Even though the fence separates the child from her father, the reality is that they are doing time together… Even though the child is on the other side of the fence, the prison garb makes it clear that the child is locked up, too. Unfortunately, that is as disturbing as it is true, making for incredibly powerful imagery.”

Litiona Paeule, Doing Time with Papa, 2017, oil on panel

“In essence, I believe the PAC is so effective because it addresses prisoners’ basic human need for creative self-development, personal autonomy, and self-expression… I was released from prison on September 12, 2018, after 21 years, 4 months, 3 weeks, and 6 days of incarceration… As a result of what I learned in the PAC, I co-authored [a creative writing course] that encourages honest self-expression, enhances empathetic understanding, inspires introspection, and promotes rehabilitation and healing.”

Wendy Staggs writes, “A friend of mine struggled with mental illness and had repeated residency in crisis beds. That cycle stopped the first day she attended the CBA art class… She described her time on suicide watch; expressing the darkness that lived deep within her, how lost and lonely she felt… Unprompted, she shared with me, ‘I may be in prison but I feel freer now than I ever have in my life… When I was creating my piece… I found peace.’ She continued the class and continued to free herself from the darkness within, as well as from crisis.”

J. Garvey, Keep Watch Over Yourselves and Your Whole Flock, 2017, Mixed media on paper, 11″x8.5″

“There is one contrast to the previous story that I feel compelled to address. The piece Spectrum of Hope (The experience of incarceration) by D. Stuart at CIM, tells a whole different story. Instead of vibrant greens and strengthened trunks, the image is dry and colorless and the trees depicted appear to be dead. This is such a genuine and honest portrayal of incarceration. Sometimes, the spectrum of hope is non-existent. This is a world that tears people down more than building them up. The rays of hope and light that creep into this desolate environment are usually volunteers who are coming into facilities to bring love and respect and to offer many different vessels of healing. The arts are a large portion of these offerings.”

“Incarceration is typically thought of as a terrible plague and the people in it are too often considered part of the disease. But I found my time of incarceration to be my timeout in life. I was able to discover healing by applying myself in the world of the arts, creating artwork, singing, theater, creative writing and spoken word. Today I am an activist fighting to re-humanize a population that is often thrown away and forgotten.”

Shelly Jackson writes, “Although they cannot go to the store to get supplies nor order them online, the men have not allowed these issues to keep them from doing what brings them joy: art. Many of them have found innovative ways to work with the supplies that are available and immerse themselves in art… An artist named Tony took part in our program and was so dedicated to making art that when housed in solitary confinement, he was constantly innovating new approaches to painting using the materials available to him and made a series of paintings of President Obama using only coffee… Another participant in our program, Martin, utilizes found and recycled cardboard to make intricate sculptures of cars and helicopters.”

Duncan Martinez, Liberty Enmeshed, 12″x16″

The final section includes creative writing by PAC participants, including prose, poetry, and a song. The book also includes photographs by Peter Merts documenting the workshops in prison. Merts and Prof. Larry Brewster co-published another book titled Paths of Discovery: Art Practice and Its Impact in California State Prisons in 2015.

Murray, Tree, 2017, Oil on panel, 20″x16″

Stan Hunter, one of the panelists on the exhibition tour, pointed out the transformational value of the PAC art workshops. On a personal level, he shared that becoming a painter freed him from drug addiction. This makes me think of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s study of flow, the psychology of optimal experience. Stan also spoke of the effect on behavior of art workshop participants; they were nicer to the guards and less violent. The workshops also broke down racial tensions through participation in a shared interest.

I am reminded of some stunning statistics I read in a book called The Art of Relevance: “36% of foster youth age out into homelessness. 70% of California prison inmates are former foster youth.”

It seems clear that there is an interconnectedness between the absence of parents, a failed foster care system, homelessness, drug addiction, and crime. It suggests that more attention to root causes is needed. Interconnectedness is an attribute of complexity. Addressing these problems as part of a complex system—rather than independent, complicated problems—may be a critical step in finding effective solutions.


Beyond the Blue: Artwork and Writing from the Prison Arts Collective. San Diego: Prison Arts Collective, 2019. Available from PAC.