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."