Prisoners Speak in ‘Another Country’

What does art by inmates jailed for everything from drunk driving to rape and murder look like? Paintings of angry, tattooed men, bloody fist fights, cramped cells and windows with black bars generally come to mind.

But generalizations and stereotypes can prove false. Case in point: “Light From Another Country: Art From California Prisons,” opening Monday at Claremont Graduate School.

The grim vision of an inmate dumping garbage, a hated task performed by all, is one of the show’s few works that bespeak the dark side of prison life. Instead, brightly colored, vibrant scenes of subject matter far removed from incarceration dominate the multimedia exhibit with works by 30 inmates and 15 professional artists who teach art in prisons throughout the state for the California Department of Corrections.

“People frequently think that there’s going to be a lot of tension and violence in the (inmates’) work,” said William Cleveland, who runs the Art-In-Corrections program. “But in fact, when people are deprived of nature and relationships, their imagination is a marvelous tool, and often their art reflects what they don’t have or what they wish they had.”


Relationships, family and freedom, “or a yearning for freedom,” are recurring themes in the inmates’ work, Cleveland said. For instance, there’s a photo-realistic painting by Alain Corbisier depicting three generations of a family happily clustered around a sunny picnic table. A surreal self-portrait by Steven King Ainsworth shows him standing beside a keyhole leading to the outside world.

The professional artists’ works are included to prove that the prison program is a two-way street, Cleveland said.

“Rather than just passing on information, the teachers end up collaborating with their students and you can see that in the work. You can see the teacher’s influence on students and see the influence of the students and the prison environment on the teacher.”

The quality of the inmates’ work varies, said Jeanne La Barbera, gallery director at Cal State Polytechnic, which hosted the exhibit in November. Some looks professional, she said, and some does not.

“But that’s not what the show is about. It’s about the opportunity for individuals we don’t normally encounter to communicate with us. Some of the less polished pieces are among the most touching because they are done by people who don’t have much formal training, but have something to say, whether it be about loneliness for their family or anything else.”

Studies done by the Art-In-Corrections program show declining recidivism rates for inmates involved in the 10-year-old project, said Cleveland, a musician and writer.

“The bottom line here is that people who have only found their identity and self-worth in predatory and destructive behavior are given the opportunity to transfer their anger, their intensity and their negative energy into a creative, constructive activity that is well thought of and accepted by society,” he said. “For a lot of them, it’s their first legitimate success in life.”

“Light From Another Country,” through Feb. 3, is presented in the Galleries of the Claremont Graduate School Graduate Art Program, 251 E. 10th St., Claremont.

GRANTS GALORE: Thirteen Southern California museums and arts institutions have won $721,100 in grants for special exhibitions from the National Endowment for the Arts.

The local recipients, among 118 institutions nationwide awarded a total of $6 million, are:

Los Angeles County Museum of Art, $320,000; Museum of Contemporary Art, $140,000; La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art, $118,300; Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions, $28,500; Santa Barbara Contemporary Arts Forum, $19,900; Newport Harbor Art Museum, $17,400; University Art Gallery, Cal State Long Beach, $17,000; Fellows of Contemporary Art, $12,500; Cal State Fullerton Art Gallery, $12,000; California Museum of Photography, UC Riverside, $10,000; University Art Museum, UC Santa Barbara, $10,000; Santa Barbara Museum of Art, $5,000.