My dad, Jim Carlson, used to run the Arts in Corrections (AIC) program at New Folsom Prison (as highlighted in Michel Wenzer’s award-winning film, At Night I Fly). Since the remnants of AIC were finally cut out of the California state budget in 2009, Carlson has been working at the institution as a recreational therapist. This move to mental health services has fundamentally changed the physical space and materials he uses in his teaching practice. In response to the demands of the teaching context—particularly the interplay between mental illness and confinement—Carlson has new students explore drawing through a directed doodling process. The process of doodling provides students with the opportunity to learn about, and employ, the principle elements of art while eschewing some of the intimidating expectations associated with representation. I do not often get to observe him teaching. Recently, however, I was meeting with an individual writer in the same room as one of Carlson’s visual arts courses and overheard something that has been haunting me since.
This particular class was for inmates in the psychiatric security unit (PSU) who have been removed, or “administratively segregated” in prison bureau-speak, from the rest of the mental health services unit based on a serious infraction. PSU is, more or less, the Mental Heath Services version of “The Hole.” Carlson’s PSU class meets in a small, windowless rooms with eight phone booth sized cages crammed against three walls. The space has an unrelenting echo. It is difficult for inmates to see each other, and the plexi-glass spit-guard on the front of each booth, by design, distances participants from the teacher.
Inmates come to class in a chain gang, hands cuffed at the small of their backs. They patiently wait their turn as, one by one, their feet and wrists are unshackled and they are locked into the booths. As they shuffle in, Carlson hands each artist a box of crayons and some print-making paper. When they need additional sheets, he slides them through the gap where the door of the cage does not quite meet its frame. The night I was there, one particular artist came in loud, shouting at Carlson over the din of cuffs and rusty hinges, motioning him to take the stack of papers he had pressed to his body with his left elbow. Carlson had been gone for a few weeks and this artist was eager to update him on what had happened in his absence.
Artwork by M. Dement | Photo by Jim Carlson
Carlson took the folio and started looking through the artist’s drawing, commenting on color choice, value, and balance. This particular artist had embraced the project, spending whole days creating intense, fantastical images. His compositions have a depth and jewel-like quality that Carlson describes as a “beautiful example of outsider art.”
On this night, Carlson walked from cage to cage, showing the other students how the artist has juxtaposed colors in a way that added energy to the drawing. The artist was pleased with his work and welcomed the praise. Then his voice lowered and he shook his head. He started to recall how he had given a stack of drawings to a different staff member while Carlson had been away. Now that person did not know where the drawings were. “We lost seven good mermaids,” he said in all seriousness.
I stopped what I was doing and looked at his face. I saw between the brindled beard and creased forehead, the effect of the loss. Those mermaids were real. Born between his mind’s eye and his drawing hand, onto a 6×6 inch canvas in a 6×9 foot concrete room. This artist had accepted Carlson’s invitation to create, to make things come alive. And someone—either careless or cruel—had taken the mermaids away, misunderstanding their value as more than brightly layered crayon on paper.
I have been thinking about the mermaids and what they mean for my own teaching practice. They remind me that when we invite artists to create, we ask them to call forth new life. And with that invitation comes the sacred responsibility to hold things recently-born with care and respect. Of course, we might encourage artists to add color here, re-draft there, imagine additions, push limits, and resist the temptation to fall in love with their own made-objects. But when those same objects are in my teacher-hands, I want to handle them with dignity—cradle them same way I would hold any living thing new to this world.