Art on Trial

Confessions of a serial art therapist

Inmate Mural Arts Program Part 1: Transformation Thru Unity

How art therapists and inmates came together to create a larger than life mural

Transformation thru Unity--an Inmate Mural 22X47ft.
Transformation thru Unity--an Inmate Mural 22X47ft.

Imagine driving past a large state prison in the middle of nowhere and you get a glimpse of bright colors through the barbed wire-topped fence. It's not entirely clear what it is, but if you stop at a certain point, you can make out something, something you can’t believe is on a prison wall—a large, 22x47 foot painting.

Such an amazing piece exists in a small town in North Florida, and it emerged from the collective vision of many persistent individuals and program facilitators: FL Department of Correction (DOC) administrators, the newly designated Florida Arts in Corrections program (AiC), a prison’s warden, chaplain, and correctional officers, the Florida State University art therapy program, two of its graduate students and a handful of inmates. It was completed in just over three months.

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Color Sketch Detail
Color Sketch Detail
This piece, the first of what became known as the Inmate Mural Arts Program, or IMAP, was the inaugural art project of the AiC; it was started the spring of 2008.

An Inmates' Mural

To get ideas for how to complete such murals, members of the AiC [of which I served as chair] and the Deputy Secretary of the DOC attended the Arts in Criminal Justice conference in Philadelphia, PA. Part of the agenda involved learning about the Philadelphia Mural Project as presented in the previous post, Prison Murals: Inmates and Crime Victims Create Together.

Following, a team was created that included two graduate art therapy students from Florida State University, Julie Argue and Jacquelyn Bennett (now Hartman). These two former students, now art therapy colleagues, were successful in developing the 12-person inmate team that carried this first project to fruition. These two, with great input by institutional administrators, chose participants from those that demonstrated interest, skill and good judgment—the inmates were short-timers, set to get out soon, and this project would provide new opportunities to learn how to adjust to the outside.

Despite its focus on creating an extensive art project, this process facilitated therapeutic gains. In particular it aimed to improve socialization and problem-solving skills, necessary to facilitate reintegration upon release from the institution.

The team was provided a large outside wall on the prison chapel that faced the guest parking lot and visitors area. [To be clear, the warden and chaplain did not require much convincing—they were exuberant about having such a painting showcased inside their fences].

Much was to be done to make this wall work, including moving two large air-conditioning units and securing the area so that scaffolding could be put up in the morning and taken down in the evening (of course, it couldn’t be left up as would normally be done for a mural…for obvious reasons).

An initial sketch
An initial sketch
An initial sketch2
An initial sketch2
Ms. Argue and Bennett met with the newly developed inmate/artist team, and asked them to brainstorm ideas and develop sketches on what they would like to see included in the final piece.

Final sketch
Final sketch
From these sketches, Ms. Bennett began developing composite sketches for one large image. These images were shown to the team for input and suggested changes.

After consensus was reached one final color sketch, resized to fit the proportions of the wall, was completed to be used as a map.

The final color sketch
The final color sketch
Following, scaffolding was erected, the wall was primed, and the mural was transferred to the chapel wall via projector and computer using Sharpie permanent markers. Paint was pre-mixed to match the color palette, and stored in sealed containers. A large number of brushes were used, counted before and after each painting session.

Beginnings...
Beginnings...
The IMAP team spent roughly the next month painting the final image, from around 9 in the morning until around 3 in the afternoon, each day, Monday through Friday. At first they would stop when it began to storm, but the inmates were reluctant to do so, calling such storms a mere sun shower. Eventually a compromise was reached—if there was thunder, they had to climb down from the metal scaffolding and wait for the storm to pass—it was Florida; they usually waited no more than 20 minutes.

Inmates working on the mural
Inmates working on the mural
Although Ms. Argue and Ms. Bennett assisted in the painting at times, for the most part, they generally facilitated the project.

The facility staff and administration were supportive, and delighted with the final product Transformation Through Unity. It has since received much attention and visibility, from an exhibition at the Florida State Department’s Division of Cultural Affairs to press releases and a brief news documentary aboutthe final mural piece [this video can be found here].

Reactions from the participants[*]

The process of completing the project through working together was impactful; it became a transformative experience for the inmates that took part in it.

Many described it as a metaphor for life. As one indicated:

Everyday we face this massive white wall—the obstacles in our lives—and how are we going to handle it? We can walk away and ignore the problems, or we can face them and conquer them head on.

One said, “Everything we put on that wall came from within,” and one reflected that the guidance from Ms. Argue and Ms Bennett allowed them to “create beyond [their] ability.”

They marveled that they were treated like human beings, and that they took pride in what they accomplished.

One even pointed out that “I’m usually always alone…how much I enjoyed the teamwork surprised me.” Ultimately, “This was about more than paint.”

Most rewarding was their own ability to reflect on the final product, and relate it back to their own experiences. Perhaps the one inmate who worked on the tall man’s suit best summed up the difficulty they faced, both in making the mural and with being in prison: 

The rough way I did the transformation in the pants of the dude reflects how hard that transformation is to make. I couldn’t do like how it was in the sketch… that was a smooth transition. I had to make it look torn, almost violent, because that’s what it feels like…that’s how hard it is to change.

A previous post, Art Behind Bars, indicated that one of the benefits of art therapy in prison is that it permits the inmate to express himself in a manner acceptable to both the prison and outside culture. Nowhere is this clearer than in the Inmates Mural Arts Program.

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Coming next, a mural completed by jail inmates—in the middle of town.

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[*] Adapted from: Argue, J., Bennett, J., & Gussak, D. (2009). Transformation through negotiation: Initiating the Inmate Mural Arts Program, Arts in Psychotherapy, 36, 313-319.

David Gussak, PhD, ATR-BC, is professor and chairperson for the Florida State University Department of Art Education, and Clinical Coordinator of its Graduate Art Therapy Program.

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