The definition of mentorship is the influence, guidance, or direction given by a mentor. It is a tool that can be used to help guide incarcerated or formerly incarcerated individuals to a more sustainable and structured life. Some responsibilities of a mentor are providing career advice, being a source of information and feedback, helping build self-confidence, and helping develop creative and independent thinking-among other things. But mentorship also find it’s relevance amongst artists in prison. Would you consider becoming a mentor to an incarcerated artist?
“I was introduced to acrylics in ‘92 by Alonzo, a Cuban arms dealer who got caught in Laredo and in ‘99 an old heroin addict by the name of Crespo tricked me into working with oils. He had tried to persuade me to paint with them, claiming it was easy. I thought I had to go to school to learn to paint with them. Coincidentally he was painting a Virgin of Guadalupe and told me he couldn’t paint a certain line and asked me to do it because his hand hurt. I told him I didn't want to ruin the painting since I didn't know how to paint with them and he urged me to try. I fell in love with oils! These were my teachers along with so many other prisoners from whom I learned a little technique or two, you can imagine all the arts forms I’ve seen in juvenile, county, state penitentiaries and even the state hospital: 30+ years of learning. “ - Miguel Angel Venegas, currently incarcerated.
The author of Art Inside Prison, Dennis Sobin describes creative experiences and mentorships inside prison walls. He spoke to the high limits that inmates could push their artistry to and the way that art could ‘keep their spirit alive’. Mentioned is an individual who when they were not creating art, they were looking forward to it. Another individual mentioned in the book dreamed of mastering the guitar while incarcerated — he succeeded. A large contributor to this accomplishment was his mentor — the pianist for the chapel who provided sheet music for him as well as consistently inspired the incarcerated artist in many ways.
“When I came to prison I had no direction and didn’t know what to do. I had a celly who was an incredible artist. He taught me a few little things and the rest I picked up on my own. I started drawing because my old cellmate who taught me killed himself in prison. He was my best friend and he taught me a lot so I figured that I owed him that.” - Tyler Cruz aka “Kid”, currently incarcerated.
But most of the incarcerated artists discover their skills by themselves. It’s this sweet & sour situation that, with now so much time on their hands and a mind to occupy to not somber in depression, they grab a pencil and start doodling. And a rough sketch eventually becomes a masterpiece. An outsider artist is born.
“I am a self taught artist in colored pencil and graphite. I have always been interested in art of all media and time eras. I have done little to no art from 1998 to 2019. I started drawing again to pass the time and for therapeutic measures.” - Stanley McGuyer, currently incarcerated.
The need to fill up the empty minutes in prison and desire to give back to their community pushes some to seek the further level and become a mentor themselves, just like Joey Owens, currently incarcerated in North Carolina: “I am presently an art teacher here at Nash Corr art school in North Carolina. I love doing hyper realism in portraiture but I love land/sea scapes the most, they seem to tug on my heart cords.”
Some will give back to their immediate community in a different way by starting tattooing. The tattoo culture inside prison is major and offers the talented ones a way to make their skills valuable inside prison walls. The discovery of this unknown talent or the pursuance of this skill acquire previous to incarceration offers a potential career pathway beyond the correctional facilities barbwire.
“Over the years, I have run into some incredible artists who are locked up that do cards to send home, designs for tattoos, and pictures to pass time in a constructive manner.” - Wesley Whitworth, currently incarcerated.*****
“I really enjoy creating new concepts such as original tattoo art flash and comics. I am a self taught artist since 1993.” - Keith rivers, currently incarcerated.
Art find its way inside prison through the cracks of mentorship, through the empty hours of a mind that cannot rest, or under the thin slot of a prison cell door just like an invitation to keep on living. Whether it’s to stay sane, to be seen in a different light that the crime & number that defines them or to provide for their families, art exists within prison walls in many shapes and form. And even if the purpose of the US prison system is to keep these artists hidden from society, (sometimes even removing their names from certain art exhibits - that’s another subject) our dedication is to expose their talent & their stories. To keep creativity and minds alive, for a better society.