Drawing has been a key part of Chris’s daily artistic practice, a skill he developed over the past 20 years while in prison. The artist is 41 years old now. But last July, Chris made his first ever painting. Now, almost a year later, he is honing his skills. A horse, a German shepherd, and Pennywise (a beloved fantasy figure) are in his current paintings as he explores new subject matter, greater depth, portraiture, and a larger scale. Chris chooses his subjects based on how much they challenge his skills. For example, Purple Haze features a horse in front of a forest with a cabin in the background. Here, Chris decided to place an animal within his landscapes. “I’m not trying to limit myself,” Chris says, “I want to do everything.” (All quotes are taken from an interview with the artist on 16 May 2022.)
Sometimes, the artist is commissioned to paint portraits of friends’ pets, as a way for the recipient to connect with their loved ones while not able to maintain a physical presence. That is why realism is so prevalent in prison artists’ circles.
Embellishing a recent collection of paintings, Chris developed a signature: his last name in large, flourished lowercase letters etched in a contrasting color—a proud statement of self.
When you look at his growing body of work, the artist wants you to see, “that I am well-versed in all subject matter and not boxed into one genre.” He intended to show a range of subjects and compositional elements. His final works demonstrate hours of practice.
Before painting anything, Chris sketches a few compositions on paper that he can dwell on and take back to his personal space at Maine State Prison where he resides.
Maine State Prison has an art room equipped with a variety of art materials and six tables for residents to make art. However, the facility does not have the funds to purchase high quality art supplies or pay for professional teaching artists. Therefore, mentors such as Chris become instructors to other artists in the prison. In an artist statement, Chris said, “I encourage everyone to pick up a pencil, a paint brush, or any instrument you like. You’ll find that art will give you total freedom.”
When I first met Chris in 2021, he showed me his most recent drawing, a sunlit pathway flowing through a forest edged with delicate blades of grass and tree branches. I was curious about the two black lines that intersect the piece in the center like a window frame. When asked about the drawing, Chris said to me, “that’s what I imagine is behind the wall.”
Instead of looking out onto grassy vegetation, Chris’s view looks out onto a concrete wall of another housing unit. In response, the artist painted landscapes that he imagined were behind the wall.
The following artist statement (from July 2021) reveals the importance of art for Chris:
What you are looking at is not an accurate depiction of my view from my prison cell, but simply my imagination.
A family member once asked me what the view from my cell was, or did I even have a window? I told them I have a great view of the outdoors. Was it a lie? Sure, but their minds were at ease, so I was okay with it. During my 20+ years of incarceration, I’ve never talked prison politics with anyone on the outside.
Most days in my cell I find myself daydreaming while looking out the blank window, not seeing the concrete wall just outside, but instead, beautiful landscapes in various seasons. This is my view.
My favorite time of the day is actually 9:00 pm. when the door slams closed for the night and the ringing in my ear from all the dayroom noise starts to subside. This is the time I’m most creative. I sit in my chair facing the window and try to visualize the foliage changing colors and the sun setting. It’s amazing what you can see while looking at a wall.
15 years ago, I picked up drawing and just this past week tried my hand at painting. That is going to be my new love for sure. Art is very therapeutic and has helped me cope with my situation.
Although Chris is focused on amplifying his skills with the help of TV shows and books, “we can only take it so far in here,” he lamented. The creativity of artists in prisons and jails is limited to the material and education access of the facility. Chris explained to me that he cannot excel in his art because of the prison’s basic art supplies: “I know in here, the materials that we have, that’s the limit because that really does matter. If you want to take it to the next level, you got to have those materials.” Clearly, Chris is aching to progress onto that next level.
“I am really looking forward to what I can do when I leave here and get some good art supplies [and have] better references to make better art.” The caliber of the art is a reflection of the system. Art made in prison is mostly realistic because of the lack of education and exposure to other styles. If individuals who became artists while in prison were educated in abstraction, surrealism, mixed media, etc, perhaps we would see a wider range of styles in prison creative output. However, the work of incarcerated artists makes evident that creativity persists beyond the boundaries of prison walls.
Making art means something else when it is done in prison. Creativity and self-expression are special, sacred, when they thrive in a space designed to dampen the human spirit. For Chris and countless others, making art has kept him alive within dehumanizing conditions. Painting and drawing have opened an enormous world for Chris and allow him to learn and grow well beyond the prison walls. With dedication, innovation, and pure ambition one can learn to become an artist while in prison. Chris’s determination and talent are an inspiration to us all.
To the readers: have you worked with incarcerated artists before? Please share your experience. How does someone work with limited supplies and little contact with loved ones? How does creativity become a healing force within harsh living conditions? As artists, art educators, and art historians, how can we open the art world to better include our incarcerated artist community members? Please email me at <email@example.com>.
This article was made possible by the generous collaboration of the Maine Department of Corrections. Many thanks are extended to Correctional Care and Treatment Worker Stacey Crafford, Deputy Warden Matt Magnusson, Deputy Commissioner Ryan Thornell, Deputy Warden of Programs Heather Richardson, and Prison Administrative Coordinator Jim Hancox.
Image at top: Chris W., Cell Window, acrylic on canvas, 11 x 14 in., 2021.