Many years ago, I had the opportunity to work with a graduate art therapy student, Shannon Schmitz, in the heart of the Midwest. I was asked to help her with her masters project, focusing on her experiences as an art therapist in prison. She completed her degree despite holding down full-time jobs, having and caring for a new family, and many other personal challenges. She succeeded because of her love, drive and commitment for the field. Throughout this time, and since, she has excelled. Her experiences in corrections are vast—over the years, she has provided art therapy with an array of forensic populations—in men's prisons, women's prisons and forensic psychiatric institutions, for the physically ill and those with mental and emotional difficulties—and she remains committed to providing the best services to this underserved population. She graciously agreed to write a blog post about one of her most recent experiences, and as you can see from the post below, her commitment and passion for this work remains unchanged.

Barred Art: Reflections on a Prison Art Show

Shannon Schmitz MS, AT

Shannon Schmitz-used with permission
Source: Shannon Schmitz-used with permission

Recently, a group of incarcerated men in the prison I work have formed their own organization, The Fine Arts Organization. While I work in the maximum-security part, in its mental health unit, this organization invited me to be a judge for its art show held in a makeshift gallery in the medium security complex. It was so inspiring that as a result, I wrote this post to reflect on my work as an art therapist prison.

I am incredibly lucky to work in a prison in the heart of the Midwest that supports the arts, and understands how healing art can be. Within its walls resides The Fine Arts Organization:

A collective group of men who come together to promote art and crafts. We want to bring together Artists and Crafters together and give them a place and time to express their ideas and give them a way to host classes and workshops in their media, so that they learn more. To help others learn the benefits that the arts will help stimulate the brain, and help them cope with stress and depression.”

Shannon Schmitz-used with permission
Source: Shannon Schmitz-used with permission

Prisons are not the most inspiring places. Concrete bars, fences, barbwire, gates—everything is so bland and institutional. Yet art is created every day. Amazing art of perfected technique, other works that are so emotionally expressive they are a force to be reckoned with. But why do these men create? Not a simple question, no simple answer.

As an art therapist, I have worked in and out of prisons for most of my career. Inside, art making is done for a variety of reasons. Some do portraits of loved ones and celebrities, they create stationary to write to loved ones, and decorate envelopes—they do so to sell or trade for a few creature comforts. Then there is the art created to define gang affiliations or designed tattoos that cause serious health concerns. Art is made to help pass time, to celebrate holidays and birthday. Then, there is the art made for art’s sake.

Shannon Schmitz-used with permission
Source: Shannon Schmitz-used with permission

Regardless of the reason, the art expresses inner thoughts and feelings. It is made to help cope with their bleak and often dangerous environment. It helps the creator cope with their actions that led them to prison. It is a response to their incarceration. Art is simply made. Even prison can’t stop its creation.

The makeshift art gallery is usually a gym. Folding tables and bleachers display the men’s prize possessions, their creations. There were a wide variety of art work: pen and pencil drawings, small sculptures, paintings, models, crochet items, embroidery items and air brushings. These men, with their passion for art, have come together to create a show and an organization in this unlikely place.

Humans have an innate drive to create: to make something out of nothing—to make art. It has happened throughout history and will continue to happen. This art is different; the art is raw; it is not a typical gallery. The pride of each of the artist shines off their smiles and sparkles in their eyes. When they talk about their work, the men speak passionately while seeking approval from the viewer.

Shannon Schmitz-used with permission
Source: Shannon Schmitz-used with permission

They are stripped down to a number and a last name. They all wear the same clothes, denim jeans, light blue button down shirt, and an occasional red trucker’s hat to represent whether or not that person has a job. They live in an institution of blandness and sameness. Yet they find inspiration in their imaginations, thoughts, and feelings.

As I walk through the gym of artwork I become inspired as an art therapist, an artist, and as a person. They are providing us a glimpse of what is going on in their mind and heart, leaving them vulnerable and exposed. There are pieces that show you how the artist is trying to cope, trying to survive, trying to live a life, trying to thrive.

Shannon Schmitz-used with permission
Source: Shannon Schmitz-used with permission

The hours of time these men have spent on these pieces in that gym might have easily taken a life time. Perfect pencil modeling in just about every drawing. Pen drawings completed with unbelievable and impeccable shading. Air brushing technique that is so flawless that you would think it was a photograph. Painted animal eyes so realistic that they haunt and follow me around the gym. Small sculptures made of ingenious materials, bread and glue, shaped wet toilet paper shaped to form, other found materials. Bright colors of different crochet items, and delicate embroidery work. To stand in this place with this artwork was overwhelming—yet I was asked to choose which pieces of work were “the top three” in each category. It seemed impossible. I took my time and absorbed everything—I took it all in and eventually made my choices. 

Shannon Schmitz-used with permission
Source: Shannon Schmitz-used with permission

It does not matter if my choices were those that “won” because I walked out of that gym a different person. I walked out inspired to share my experience and to share the artwork that I could. As an art therapist I can uses the power of art for my clients, these incarcerated men, and to use the image, its metaphor, its symbology, and the power of its process, to guide them through whatever may come. As an artist, I feel that I connect with these men because of our innate drive to create. As an art therapist I can help guide these men down a road of healing through art. Their images let me in and their image showed me their path—hey just need a little guidance. Just like the rest of us. 

About the Author

David Gussak, Ph.D.

David Gussak, PhD, ATR-BC, is a professor and chair-person for the Florida State University Department of Art Education, and a clinical coordinator of its Graduate Art Therapy Program.

You are reading

Art on Trial

Re-humanizing thru Art —Pressing On with the Discourse

How art can reverse the “natural” oppression and dehumanization of prison

Fighting My White Male Privilege—A Confession

Addressing white male privilege strengthens anti-oppressive practices—I hope

Art Set Him Free: A Former Prison Inmate's Story

One man explains how art helped him get through prison.