“I Am…”

“There are no clocks here.”

This is how one of my students started his free-write today.  He told me his mother had been a writer, that she had been put in a mental institution. She kept writing. That’s what kept her alive.

This man was clearly a writer too. He asked me what time it was and almost didn’t believe me when I said it was 2:30. Until today I never thought of knowing the time as a fundamental right. I tried to imagine what it must be like to have some vague trial date a few months down the road and the only way you’d know a day has passed is the repetition of the same routine. Eat. Shower. Write. Repeat.

This discussion started in a poetry lesson. Shelby and I arrived with a few writing prompts and a mix tape of Saul Williams and Shane Koyczan. Predictably, the common room CD player wouldn’t work, so we started simple.

We asked our students to write down three adjectives to describe themselves. My example was, “I am Amelia. I am a student. I am calm.” This was followed by three words to describe themselves as artists, three colors they feel strongly about, three words that come to mind when they think of home and three words they enjoy the sound of.

Each student mixed the words in their lists at random to make a poem. We asked our students to consider different combinations of words and explore ways they could alter the meaning of their piece. I was surprised at how willingly the men read aloud to the rest of the group. One by one they stood, proudly, and read their poems.

“I am confident.”

“I am artistic.”

“I am not the sum of my actions.”

Beautiful bits of truth. The thing about these classes is that no one ever thinks what they have done or said is remarkable. When I come home I always find myself completely floored by the way these men live and the things they have to say.  For example, today I learned that when a man is put into the psych. ward he wears his own clothing. I also learned that there are no laundry facilities. To wash their clothes they scape soap off a bar and wash their clothing in the shower. If they were unlucky enough to have been incarcerated in jeans, they wait a day or two for their pants to dry. They have no time outside. No visitors. No books. Just therapy, art class and dinner on a plastic tray.

After each student had read his work we gathered everyone in a circle and created a ‘voice collage.’ Shelby conducted. She would point at each man and he would read, when she pointed at him again he would stop. Poetry and voices overlapped and the phrase ‘I am’ was almost the only thing each poem had in common. At the end everyone read at the same time. Slowly trailing off into silence.

Next we did an activity about the idea of safe space/unsafe space. We collected words that reminded them of these themes. We got serenity, chaos, peace, war, respect, disrespect, comfort, discomfort, safety and danger. Each man chose one of the ten words and wrote freely for fifteen minutes.  Some of the writing reaffirmed my faith in art, compassion and the resilience of the human spirit. Some of it made me angry at a system that could lock away men who are capable of such beautiful words. I understand there are consequences for actions, but I think it’s a crime to deny people access to the tools they need to heal. Books, pens, fresh air…

For the first time at the end of our lesson no one stood up to leave. There was an uncomfortable silence before one man asked us how we had come to Baltimore in the first place.

Shelby and I said it was for school. He didn’t buy it. “But why Baltimore?” The way he asked made it obvious what he meant, as if we were crazy to have chosen somewhere so messy. I explained matter-of-factly that it was for community arts and to do work like this. In hindsight I wish I had said more.

It wasn’t the time to unload my theories about art therapy or the justice system; it certainly wasn’t the time to explain the life events that brought me to this exact place. But still, I wish I had some way of explaining, simply and honestly, why I have come to Baltimore, why I am doing this work and why I feel it is important. The bottom line is, at the end of a day working with the men at the BCDC, I come back to my apartment and feel grateful for my family, the classes I take, the things I find in my fridge. I am frustrated that I can’t do more. I am humbled by the opportunity to spend two hours a week teaching these men and being taught in return.

I received an email from my supervisor a few days later with some of his observations about our most recent lesson. I think he has a beautiful way of explaining things.

“I was struck by your observation in the entry about last Friday that the common phrase in each of the guys’ word collage was “I am.”  Prison is a regressive experience, but more than that it’s a loss of self, a negation, an erasure, a kind of living death or maybe a cryogenic experience.  After a while, family and friends stop visiting.  The routines and responsibilities of their lives close over the empty spot left when friend and loved one becomes inmate.  Ghostlike, inmates inhabit a twilight bell jar region where they can observe the realm of light where their family and friends still live, but cannot connect – no touch through the glass – little talk.  When release draws near some families and friends usually begin to revisit the tomb, waiting for the stone to be rolled away and for their own special Lazarus to reemerge, for suspended existence to be reanimated.

Sartre complained of the Medusa gaze of the other that makes a “thing” of a person.  No such luxury for the inmate.  Only the echo of solitary voices chorusing the existential assertion: “I am, I am, I am.”

It occurs to me that “I am” is also the name of the God of the Abrhamic faiths.  It makes me wonder if he wasn’t a prisoner to his own monotheism, needing the eyes, ears hearts and minds of the faithful to make him real.”
-Dr. Mac


p class=”MsoNormal”>Amelia Hutchison is a native of Victoria, British Columbia and is currently a Freshman at the Maryland Institute College of Art. Presently pursuing an integrated double major in Humanistic Studies and General Fine Arts, Amelia hopes to earn her masters in Community Arts. A personal interest in the transformational power of art to heal, restore and rebuild, especially in the areas of crime and trauma, has lead her to take an internship at the Baltimore City Detention Center. Amelia works with mentally ill inmates in the pretrial section of the down town prison. Her own personal artistic practice revolves around themes of forgiveness, excess and recollection.  Amelia uses painting, interactive performance/installation art and slam poetry to explore these themes. More of her work can be seen at www.artbehindbars.tumblr.com  Contact Amelia 

Also by Amelia Hutchison in ALT/space:
Art Behind Bars

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