Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Prison Art

During the year we lived in Mexico I learned that there was a prison somewhere between Saltillo and Oaxaca where the prisoners carved scenes inside the shells of walnuts. The walnut shell art was then sold to tourists.

While looking for some reference to this online I stumbled upon an article about prison art in general which was quite fascinating. The piece begins with more the more critical observation that just because the art was created under unusual circumstances, this does automaticly make it good art.

Prison artists are textbook outsiders, creating apart from the art world, with little or no formal training, under unsupportive conditions. They're also outsiders whose work typically amounts to cliche and bland imitation.

Noble Indians, sinewy basketball players, jungle animals, rugged princess warriors, pretty landscapes, celebrity portraits, fantasy beefcake: Most prisoners who try their hand at art make the same kind of uninspired, tediously rendered stuff that is liable to result from the artistic efforts of any more or less random population with time on its hands.

The author goes on at length in this vein, letting us know that he knows the difference between good art and these by-products of boredom. But it is all setup, with the aim of showing some very interesting work. One artist, Raymond Materson, unravels the threads of his socks to weave miniature tapestries. Another artist carves ornate chairs out of soap. Chip Jarrett, an inmate in Michigan, uses found objects like paper clips, cardboard and other miscellaneous materials to build models of Harley-Davidson motorcycles. He is undoubtedly the most popular guy on the cell block.

Here's an excerpt again about Jarrett:
In a letter to Lynne Bailey, who collects and sells prison art, Jarrett describes how he came to make his bikes. He was depressed after the death of his mother, he wrote.

"I went to bed that night, dreading the fact that I had to get up for another day of heartbreak.

"The next morning, I went to dump the trash can from my room, and I had a vision that hit me like a ton of bricks!! I know this sounds crazy, but I couldn't help to wonder why I was throwing away all that good trash. I ... brought the trash back to my room and started to piece together something. Maybe it was just that I was bored and needed something to do, or maybe God planted a seed in me, but the product of the things from that garbage can was something I loved in my life and something that always allowed me to feel free.... the product of my first motorcycle made out of trash with a gas tank made out of a bar of soap!!"

Later, Jarrett wrote, "When I started making my bikes, I would go through the trash everyday looking for materials and the other guys used to laugh at me and make fun of me, but after seeing that first bike, they stopped making fun of me and started asking if they could get one."

Take a minute to check out the images on the site... and if you have time read the article as well.

Our local St. Louis County Jail has been abandoned and for a time was up for sale. A professional photographer friend was part of a tour of the facility shortly after it closed. With camera in hand he photographed some amazing wall art there, which I may try to share here if able.

In the meantime... stay out of prison if you can. There are better things to do with your time. But if you gotta be there killing time, you might as well make art.


Broken said...

I guess Chip Jarretts creative ability is the one thing he gave me. I wish I knew what characteristics I've recieved from my mother but unfortunatly I don't have that opportunity. Maybe you should add all the other talents he has, such as his aim. He is very talented at taking......not so great at giving. He took my Mother and Grandmother with a shotgun, and by doing so took himself out of my life. I'm sorry to sound harsh but I have seen so many stories glorifying his ability to build these model motorcycles it's such a shame he could not be a model of something good himself.

ENNYMAN said...

I am humbled by your comments and thank you for adding perspective to this blog entry by presenting more of the story as you have here.

Unknown said...

I own one of chips bikes. Its a 1957 Harley Davidson. I will be putting it up for sale as I have no need for it. My dad bought it from him in prison. It is an incredible bike though!