My Prison Studio

As a member of a Federal works program, I taught art in community centers around Dayton, Ohio.

My fellow teachers were performers, musicians, and artists. The director was a dancer and leader of a troupe when not directing us. Artists rotated weekly to the centers, usually in pairs. Some centers were plum assignments filled with enthusiastic students and adequate supplies while others were sheer drudgery—almost like real work.

Then there was the county prison–the Montgomery County Workhouse.  How did the prison become a community center? Who knows. Nobody wanted to go there, of course. The director emphasized the wretchedness of the place and punished malcontents by assigning them there. 

The director was thoroughly corrupt and shockingly brazen about it. He challenged those, like me, who questioned his policies to go over his head, secure in the knowledge that his superiors and patrons had his back. Which, as I found out, was the case. Patrons or no, several years—say 3—after this summer, he was convicted on a number of serious felonies and was himself sentenced to a lengthy term in the state penitentiary. A story for another day.

Besides being corrupt, the director was incompetent and jealous of his privilege. I soon ran afoul of him. He punished me by permanently assigning me to the workhouse. For the remainder of my time in the program, I spent my days alone teaching art to prison inmates.

The workhouse holds a broad range of criminals. One group, not part of the criminal class, is incarcerated for minor crimes that snare the working classes at all times. These men are miserable and frightened. But the majority of inmates are from the criminal class. Several murderers were serving time there before being transferred to the state pen. These men were comfortable in prison–right at home.

The workhouse is a nineteenth-century design with the wards radiating like spokes from a central command hub. The design was supposed to ensure fresh air and adequate ventilation. There was no air conditioning and that summer was especially hot. Some days the heat was unbearable.

I was plagued by the lack of art supplies. Pleas for supplies fell on deaf ears. The director literally laughed in my face. I had to pay for the drawing paper, charcoal, and pastels out of my own woefully meager funds.

I gave drawing classes every day to a handful of students, several of whom had real talent. But most ‘students’ came to get out of work details, as I soon realized. This became a problem. The malingerers demoralized the real students and disrupted instruction. Just as things were reaching a boiling point, I was approached by a prisoner who styled himself the ‘prison boss.’

Steve, let’s call him, was one of the malingerers but he had an interest in art and had once shown me one of his drawings (not bad). He explained that he ran the place and if I agreed to let him and his boys (the malingerers) occasionally hang in the classroom, he could arrange favors from the homosexuals (he called them ‘my girls’), and guarantee my safety and ensure that class time would no longer be disrupted. I politely turned down the favors from ‘his girls’ but agreed to the rest. What did I have to lose? I could see that if I refused, the situation would become dangerous.

Steve made good on his word and I didn’t have any problems for the rest of the summer. The malingerers visited less frequently and didn’t interfere. I gave drawing classes every day and used the rest of my time to work on my own paintings. The classroom had extremely high ceilings and lofty–albeit barred–windows. An excellent space.

I kept several canvases in the classroom and worked on them each day. The canvases were never harmed. The light was excellent even if it was too blasted hot. I carried my oil painting supplies with me in a red toolbox. Prisoners and staff alike grew used to the artist coming every day to teach and paint in his ‘prison studio.’ Many had never met an artist before and were extremely curious, although the prisoners showed more interest in art than the staff. After I made the deal with Steve, no one bothered me. I looked forward to going to my studio every day–it really was a nice space.

Another good thing was the food. As a quasi-member of the staff, I was entitled to eat in the staff dining room. We had to pay for our meals, of course, but a steak dinner with all the trimmings was 25¢–a quarter if you can believe it. With the meagerness of my funds, many times I sat in the staff dining room and considered myself lucky.

I learned a few things during that summer. One, I was surprised at the number of young minorities in prison for trivial offenses. Many young blacks were in prison for crimes that would have been treated lightly in the poor white neighborhoods I frequented.

But the thing I remember most was the inmates’ vanity– I have never seen such concentrated vanity. You might wonder, as I did, how someone in prison could be consumed with vanity, but there it is. Many inmates were so consumed with self-admiration that they couldn’t take their eyes or hands off own their bodies. I am not exaggerating in the least; many admired themselves ceaselessly. I learned to keep a tight grip on my eyes and words because these types filtered everything through the prism of self-love, which meant an off-hand comment could be considered an affront. I concluded that vanity is one of the hallmarks of the criminal class.

I spent the entire summer in my prison studio.  The director, content with my ‘punishment,’ left me alone.  I got a lot of work done and, in the end, considered it a plum assignment.

When fall arrived, I quit and went back to New York City.

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