Extension Artsreach Unlocks Inmate Talent

Times Staff Writer

The letter twists and turns To the calligrapher’s pen Just like a locked-down doin’ time mind.

The poem is from the pen of Cat McDonald, 36, who is serving time for forgery and parole violation at the California Institution for Women at Frontera. Hers is no locked-down doin’ time mind. McDonald is honing her artist’s skills in evening classes offered at the prison through UCLA Extension’s Artsreach.

McDonald is due to get out in March, plans to go for a master’s degree and, perhaps, teach. During a recent class she talked of making it in the “square world” on that world’s terms--"I’m on a roll,” she said, “and I kind of like it. I’m tired of looking over my shoulder.”


She will have served a total of five years, in two terms, years carved out of her youth, but she does not view it as wasted time. She smiled and said, “Prison has taught me a lot more than it’s taken away from me. I learned to write doing time. I learned about my religion doing time (She became a Muslim and took the name Yasmeen Jamal). And I have more confidence in my art now.”

A few miles away at Chino, at the California Institution for Men, Mike Bryan, 30, who has served seven months of a five-year term for armed robbery, was among half a dozen novice sculptors in an Artsreach class. Bryan, a mechanic who has “been in prison most of my adult life,” was lovingly applying finishing touches to a clay bust he had modeled from a photograph of his wife.

Sculpture class had been under way for eight weeks and, Bryan said, “I’m starting to get the hang of it.” He added, “I hope to carry this (skill) with me” to Colorado, where he wants to start over, leaving the ghosts behind.

Evening hours drag behind prison walls and, for Bryan, three hours of art class twice a week is a constructive release. Other inmates spend the time in the gym, the yard or just sitting and talking and drinking coffee. “I’m not into any of that,” he said. “You’ve got to find something that motivates you from within in order to keep your mind occupied.”

Artsreach, a community service program under the umbrella of UCLA Extension’s Department of the Arts, takes the arts--art, music, drama, writing, dance--to those populations historically cut off from them. These include prisoners, developmentally disabled adults, the terminally ill, the elderly.

Begun in 1979 with Extension funding, it now operates on a $150,000 annual budget, the lion’s share from California Council for the Arts and the California Department of Corrections, which in 1980 established an arts-in-corrections program to combat alienation and isolation in penal institutions.

Robert A. Rees, assistant dean, UCLA College of Fine Arts, and director of the Extension’s Department of the Arts, views Artsreach as a way for Extension to give back to the community that supports it. “Most people who enroll (in extension) are people who can afford our fees,” he said, “and can afford to come to class. We want to reach those for whom it is difficult, if not impossible--the disadvantaged, imprisoned, incarcerated, immobilized.”

From its modest beginning as a program for patients at the Brentwood veterans’ hospital, Artsreach has grown into a multidiscipline project whose largest client group, inmates in five state prisons, numbers almost 6,500 annually. In total, Artsreach provides 8,000 hours of programming annually.

“We’ve touched lots of lives in good ways,” said Rees. He spoke of the emotional impact of “talking to somebody who’s in (prison) for life for murder and discovering he’s a painter,” of seeing a group of severely retarded adults act out “Beauty and the Beast,” to him “a deeply touching experience, seeing these people doing a story about transformation.”

Scratched the Surface

Rees thinks Artsreach has only scratched the surface; his long-range goals include establishment of a network to facilitate group distribution and transportation when theater tickets are offered free of charge. He’d like to “do something with victims of violent crimes. My theory is the arts can have a healing influence.”

Susan Hill, a photographer/artist who is director of Artsreach, said, “It isn’t just a do-good program. Really good things come out of it.” Prisoners painted a mural for the Angelus Plaza senior housing complex Downtown; Artsreach artists were represented in the “Art from California Prisons” exhibit at the state Capitol last spring.

In most prisons, Hill said, “What they know about art comes off the cover off Good Housekeeping. ‘Can I trace that?’ ‘No, you can’t.’ We don’t do this for just for therapy or recreation. This is quality work.”

She acknowledges that there is some resistance to the idea of taking art classes to prisoners. And she asks rhetorically, “Why are these people getting all these good things? Because you’ve taken away their freedom. That’s a lot to take away. I think it’s very important to keep alive spirit and a sense of constructive self and to refire that sense of individual competence.”

At the California Institution for Women, Hill is initiating a project of making alphabet books, posters and tapes for special education students in public schools, where funding has been cut back. Women inmates there created a day care center, which gave her another idea: What could they design in prison for use in child care centers outside? A jungle gym?

Artsreach artists are paid but, Hill said, many return as volunteers.

Hill, who is responsible for recruitment of instructors, must turn some down. She recalls the concert pianist who said he’d like to teach because “what I really want to do is save people.” Replied Hill, “That’s not going to work in prison. I’m not going to hire you.”

There have been moments of anxiety, and moments of comic relief.

One Christmas, Hill arranged for Universal to show “E.T.” for the women at Frontera. She reasoned, “All their kids were talking about it. They wanted to have the experience in common.” The audience loved it, especially the scene at the end, E.T.'s escape from the police, which brought down the house.

Hill smiled as she remembered the inmate who came up after the movie and asked for the E.T. poster on display. She explained to Hill, “I was going to steal it but the movie was so nice I thought I’d ask.”

One morning at Roger Jessup Park in Pacoima, Paula Jeppson, an art therapist and Artsreach coordinator for the Exceptional Children’s Foundation, watched, pleased, as a group of developmentally disabled adults ran through a Christmas play rehearsal.

“These people never had a school play,” she said. “In fact, they didn’t have schools. Most of them grew up in institutions.”

Curiosity abounded. What happens at a party? Do we sing? Do we eat?

Exceptional Children’s Foundation, a nonprofit privately funded organization, offers art as a remedial tool to about 500 clients at five county sites through Arts-reach. The teacher this day was Johnny Ray McGhee, a professional actor.

This was improvisational theater at its most basic. The Christmas feast laid out for party guests included crepe paper salad, crepe paper potatoes and a construction paper turkey. A crepe paper fire blazed in the hearth and a walker, borrowed from one of the class members, was pressed into service as a coatrack.

McGhee sets a goal for each student. For some, it is just “to get rid of the fears, to not be afraid to come up.” With others, he uses the arts to “teach appropriate behavior,” reminding disruptive students, “If you don’t have a group, you don’t have anything.”

With McGhee patiently directing, most decided to participate in hide-the-object games, make-believe bus ride, collective stories on which each embellished. McGhee smiled and said, “I’m real lucky. I’m an actor and I’m able to share this. I just hope they have fun.”

The Artsreach “faculty,” which has ranged from college professors to therapists, has conducted classes in songwriting, printmaking, puppetry, jazz improvisation, commercial art.

Artsreach is the primary outside project at Chino, where Tom Skelly, a former art teacher at Scripps College, is the artist facilitator, one of six statewide in the Department of Corrections’ art-in-corrections program. He came four years ago--"They threw me into this prison, no office, no typewriter or classroom"--and labored alone until Artsreach and others came to his rescue six months later.

Before learning that the “flat arts” such as painting and silk screen are the most wanted classes, Skelly remembers sending out news that he planned to teach collage: “The word got out that I was teaching college. No one showed up.”

Skelly’s association with prison artists has, he said, changed his own art style from theoretical and hard edged to “a lot earthier, more organic. I’m surrounded by people leading a gut-level life.” He theorized that prisoners paint realism because there is power in creating something real and, in prison, “there’s a sense of powerlessness.”

Skelly does not see himself in the role of art censor. He said, “If they’re going to draw a baby with syringes up and down his arm, well, I’ll look at the line quality, the shading. If that’s what you want to draw, just do it well. There’s a lot of erotic art and dream imagery, really bizarre, with warriors and primitive tribes.”

Prisoners can do whatever they wish with their work, except sell it; some is hung in cells, some goes home with visiting family members. He is convinced that art has made a difference at CIM, even though “we don’t have any statistics yet on the recidivism rate” for those who have participated.

(A 1983 evaluation prepared by a San Jose State University political scientist for the Department of Corrections concluded that the art-in-corrections program had reduced tensions among inmates and between inmates and staff and pointed to a “strong relationship” between participation and reduced disciplinary actions and, thus, reduced staff time. The report also stated that the program can be an important first step in an inmate’s process of reintegration into society).

Frank Wood, 39, who has served six months at Chino for forgery, figures he’ll be out in another six or so and plans to “go back to Kailua (Kona) and try to stay in art.” Wood, a self-described boat junkie who has been “jamming around” most of his life, in and out of prison, while in search of his own tropical paradise, does seascapes and South Seas scenes.

“If I can do them fast enough,” he said, he thinks he can sell them to tourists in Hawaii. “In here I’ve had the opportunity to develop it a lot. Having the ability isn’t the same thing as having the wherewithal, the paint, the canvas, the time.” And, he added, “the mental freedom, without the fear and all that other good stuff that happens around the pen.”

Wood is saving his canvasses, figuring he’ll have enough “so I can have a lightweight show.”

Lon Norman, 55, is a clerk assigned to the arts department as part of his inmate work program (a day off the sentence for a day worked). But his real love is music. A trombonist who played with Harry James and in “The Jackie Gleason Show” orchestra, Norman hopes to get a music program started at Chino.

Norman is serving time for voluntary manslaughter, an eight-year sentence--"I shot my wife, to be truthful. There was alcohol and drugs involved.”

As clerk, one of his jobs, he said half-jokingly, is to “make sure guys don’t carry paint off to their cell and paint a locker.” Then, turning serious, he spoke of breaking down stereotypes of prisoners as bikers with arm-to-arm tattoos and psychiatric records labeling them anti-social. “When men are confined, talent has a way of surfacing,” Norman said, “guys who have amazing talents that they would not develop on the streets.”

Rick Ripley, a Los Angeles sculptor who was conducting a class at Chino, is a former college teacher who admitted, “I was scared silly when I first got here.” This was his eighth session and now, he said, “The class feeds me. Last week I showed slides of Rodin and the students just went nuts. The enthusiasm was incredible.”

Students work mostly from photos and from anatomy books provided by Ripley. “There aren’t any female nudes running around,” he said, “so it has to be sort of guessed at.”

Kim Kaufman, for four years the arts facilitator at the California Women’s Institution, has a mural crew that has done illustrations of on-the-job scenes inside prison for use by the Department of Corrections in recruiting staff statewide. Kaufman also has plans for a crew to go into the community and paint murals on-site for nonprofit organizations.

Being on the crew carries a certain prestige; it is more than just another work incentive program. It is also a group that does not welcome the return of alumnae.

Cat McDonald belonged once, before violating parole and winding up back at Frontera. She recalled, “When I got busted, you know what flashed through my mind? This lady here, (Kaufman) because she gave me so much encouragement.” Kaufman’s rules are firm: “I tell them they can’t come back (to mural crew) because they’re not supposed to return.”

(McDonald swears she won’t be back again. A child of the ‘60s, she broke with her family, wound up in San Francisco, dabbled in drugs, stole for a living and was finally nabbed for forgery, which she considers rather ironic, as “forgery was only a sideline.”

Vonda White has served six years for a major crime; she may be out in a year. Before Frontera, her only art experience was during a year in county jail, “doing tattoo patterns on envelopes, like everyone does.”

White, the mother of six ranging in age from 9 to 21, is a former preschool teacher; in prison, she helps teach watercolor classes and has taught calligraphy, passing on skills she herself learned in prison.