Painting in prison

Anthony Dye’s abstract art, hanging in a K Street gallery, is unusual albeit unremarkable. He eschews traditional media and instead uses paint made from mustard, coffee creamer and spinach. For a modern piece, such atypical methods aren’t unheard of, but Dye’s situation is different. He has no choice but to be avant garde.

That’s because Dye, incarcerated since 1994 on kidnapping and armed robbery charges, has a hard time getting a hold of art supplies at his current residence, Georgia’s Dooly State Prison. His art hangs in Washington’s Prison Art Gallery, along with 600 to 700 other pieces – every one of which was made by a prisoner.

“They say, ‘I have no reason to get up in the morning, but now that I have my art, I paint all day,'” said gallery arts director Carolyn Cosmos. “For many of them, it’s very important psychologically, and it’s important practically too because it gives them skills.”

The gallery – located on the fifth floor of 1600 K St., N.W. – lines the walls of the offices of NORML, the advocacy organization that pushes for weaker marijuana laws, though it is independent from that organization. The art is arranged haphazardly throughout the lobby, break area and an office in NORML’s suite, stuffed in racks and chests, propped against walls, placed atop tables, and of course, hung up on display. The gallery is arranged neither by style nor by subject, and a quick glance around a room reveals paintings of everything from sailboats to wildlife to Hillary Clinton.

The gallery’s brainchild is Dennis Sobin, the 63-year-old director and founder of the non-profit Prisons Foundation, an advocacy organization that promotes the arts and education for prisoners and seeks to change laws to reduce the number of incarcerations. When a piece is sold, half the money goes to the foundation, which runs the gallery, and half goes to the prisoner or the charity of the prisoner’s choice. Cosmos says about a third of the artists who submit work make a sale.

“Criminal records don’t mean anything if your art is good,” Sobin said, describing the philosophy of his organization.

Sobin began formulating his plans for the organization while he was still incarcerated. According to court documents, Sobin was convicted by a Florida court in March 1991 of two counts of racketeering and five counts of sexual offenses involving the videotaping of minors. In March 1993, the U.S. District Court for D.C. convicted Sobin of six counts of bankruptcy fraud and related crimes stemming from a complicated scheme involving multiple aliases used to conceal revenues made from an adult party phone line. According to articles in the St. Petersburg Times, Sobin’s 1993 conviction was the result of an incident in which he videotaped two nude young children at a nudist campground in Florida, though he has denied what he did was illegal and says the videos were informative.

He said he has moved beyond that part of his life and hopes his gallery and foundation will help nurture prisoners’ artistic gifts and provide them with a rehabilitative, therapeutic outlet for their feelings.

“Once you’re involved with your art, the surroundings kind of fall away,” Sobin said, recalling the many hours he spent every day studying music while in prison. “Nothing else mattered. I was composing. I was arranging. It was just a wonderful thing, and it’s the same thing with these (artists).”

Prison art also humanizes prisoners for outside audiences, he said. “People see this and say, ‘Wow, we thought they were all animals on the inside, but here they are performing classical music or creating lovely visual arts,'” Sobin said. “It really has an impact on people.”

Tammy Williams, who sold five or six works while in prison on bank robbery charges, has been out of prison for nearly a year. She wasn’t an artist until she went to prison, but while there she developed a knack for portraiture and is now taking college classes in graphic design.

Knowing she could create art gave her a sense of accomplishment and provided her with an emotional outlet, she said. Through art, she could deal with feelings such as the pain of separation from the family and the frustration of not being able to help her kids when they needed her, like when they got teased at school.

“There aren’t many ways you can get things out when you’re incarcerated,” Williams says in a phone interview. “There aren’t many people you trust to talk to. I’ve never been one to talk a whole lot anyway, so the painting gives you an outlet. It’s a way to get things out you wouldn’t necessarily be able talk about or give voice to.”

Williams says she thinks allowing prisoners to create art is a good idea because it curbs destructive behavior and allows them to channel their feelings of frustration, disappointment, and hopelessness.

The birth of the gallery was a difficult road. After his release from prison in 2003, Sobin was homeless but did not give up his dream of creating the Prisons Foundation. He remained undeterred, and after a year, he was starting to make money from music gigs, and the gallery was starting to get grant funding.

Sobin said consistent themes emerge in prisoner art, including landscapes, beautiful women and fantasy art. Most people who send art to the gallery are those serving sentences of 10 years or more, Sobin said.

“People with short sentences are less motivated to do their art. After five years, people start looking into themselves, and that’s where the art comes in. Then it takes them another five years to get good at it.”

He says he understands criticism from those who say prisoners’ art shouldn’t be put on display, given the violent nature of some of their crimes, so his foundation invites victims’ rights groups to its events and provides those groups with some funding.

Among the gallery’s most talented artists is Sudan Paul Miller, who is serving 20 to 40 years in Michigan’s Ionia Maximum Correctional Facility for armed robbery of a bank. His works, featuring geometric shapes, bear a striking resemblance to the art of the Dutch painter Mondrian.

“I take the consequences for my wrongs. I don’t blame others,” Miller wrote on the back of a piece. “Art keeps me sane. Keeps me from going crazy. Helps me deal with the depression, stress, tension, anxiety, loneliness.”

The artists’ message is sometimes subtle. Behind Earl Thompson’s depiction of a ram, he writes that the creature “bares his scarred and battered horns with dignity, welcoming all adversity.” DeCoursey Ron Smith writes that the hardworking woodpecker – the subject of his piece – has characteristics he needs in his own life. Other times, the artist is more blatant. One graffiti-style piece depicts an inmate screaming, “I am not a criminal.”

Some of the pieces are exemplary, and others are amateurish (or “works in progress,” as Sobin says). That’s because the group doesn’t reject any art, and as a result there are several hundred pieces in storage. Prisoners get art supplies in many ways – from families, from shops in the prisons, and sometimes even by special ordering them. But in some prisons, such as those in Georgia, artists have to improvise because art supplies are essentially forbidden, Sobin said. So artists turn M&M’s into paint, make envelopes into canvasses, and use their fingers instead of brushes, doing everything they can to create art.

“Some of it is not my taste – but I’m not an arts critic – but I think it gives them a positive outlet to express themselves artistically,” said Lionell Thomas, assistant director of the city’s arts commission, which has provided the gallery with grants. “We know the healing power of the arts and what it can do the soul of a person.”

The Hatchet has disabled comments on our website. Learn more.