By Christine Bespalec-Davis
I last saw my students in March, the week before the the city of Chattanooga and Walker State Prison – where for the past two years I have worked as a volunteer on behalf of the Hunter Art Museum teaching a hands-on art history class – made recommendations for everyone to stay home. Every second Tuesday I took a meditative drive down the mountain where I live, through Chattanooga and into rural Georgia, leading me to the prison gates and a growing group of students who ache for the opportunity to learn, discuss and make art. I dragged a large, clear storage container stuffed with slideshows and materials, nearly as big as me, through security and past countless guards to reach them in our makeshift classroom. Every visit brought familiar faces (and three to five new ones as more participants requested to work and study in our group).
A large chunk of class is show and tell: articles they found, music they want to listen to while painting, questions about an artist we discussed last time, and genuine interest in what motivates, inspires and then is designated as “successful” for an artist – to them, to me and to the public that consumes these works. We always work right up until the last minute. Our classroom has six random tables set up in the gym, a large fan and a computer/projector system. Many of the men in my class, ranging in age from 19 to 67 years, have not participated in art classes since grade school. Many find their own ways to create: rubbing rocks on the concrete to carve into mini sculptures, writing poetry, designing tattoos, and drawing pictures of their families from old photographs. All are working “to be better”, and all want a chance to be heard. They often ask how they can connect and if the work they make and the conversations we have might make a difference. I say yes, but often, I don’t know.
Walker State is a specially designated faith- and character-based prison that provides a pro-social, programmatic environment for change to offenders. Prisoners must apply to be in this program that boasts one of the lowest recidivism rates in the nation. Run by volunteers, these learning opportunities, mentorship programs and life-skill training opportunities are not usually available to the incarcerated. Inmates can take classes for credit that allows them develop new skills to be used when they are released, giving them a better chance of breaking the pattern of repeated arrest and imprisonment running rampant in our country.
Discussion of education in the context of equity and access often does not take into consideration the nation’s more than two million prisoners, a disproportionate number of whom are Black or Latinx Americans. These groups are silenced, literally and figuratively; in many states, including the one where I work, prisoners lose the basic right to vote. Currently, they are living in even greater risk as COVID has spread rapidly within our prison system.
The simple act of showing up and listening is met with so much gratitude from students that I often leave feeling frustrated and disheartened by how little it takes to make a difference and how difficult it is to make these small gestures accessible to the men and women and children in our justice system. I see more articles expressing excitement and surprise over the emotional intelligence of the prison population than those expressing arguments to respect their humanity.
Getting into the materials, the history and real-life experiences of artists and art movements spark creative inspiration as well as personal introspection in my group. I listen carefully, I take notes. I wish I could capture their voices, their tattoos, the way their bodies are bent – often stooped, always sore – or the conversations as they unfold, bouncing from art to music to memories to bad food. I keep notes of gratitude, slipped into my books. And a small stone, carved and rubbed until smooth on the concrete in the yard. And a photograph of one man’s grandmother, because he remembered I liked to make art with old photographs.
I have so many questions– so much I want to know! I write a lot of poetry and I think maybe abstraction and what those artists were thinking about is a lot like poetry. I’m really inspired by it.
I was a minister and a teacher before I came here. These ideas of individuality being explored, seeking that clarity and creativity, reminds me a lot about the philosophies I studied in theology, but brought to life visually.
I want to help others who find themselves here – to give them hope. To let them know they can be better. But when I get out, I’m not coming back.
At our last class in March, several of my students who I have known for close to two years looked worried. “They won’t let you come back if things get bad. If it gets in here, they will let us die.” I was supposed to return at the end of the week for Family Day to promote the class and share their work. As of today, in August, it has been 5 months since I have seen them. I have sent emails and packets with activities to the warden but have had no correspondence other than the continued ban of outside staff/volunteers.
Recently, I found myself in the vicinity of the prison and decided to take a detour. I had missed the cows I saw in the field when I turned off the small highway onto local roads. The man that sells eggs for $2 a carton was selling his home. The church looked stark and silent next to the prison as I turned the corner. There were no cars in the parking lot, not even in spots reserved for regulars. There was no movement between buildings, no familiar faces or the friendly dog in the firehouse to greet me. No one outside. Just a heavy stillness in stark contrast to the brilliant sun and billowing clouds on an otherwise gorgeous day.
Two men in the guard house came out to see who was driving through. One looked familiar and I waved. As we made eye contact, I caught the look on his face and the gun against his side. No one was visiting these men. No one had since the week I last walked through those gates. In my naiveté I had been missing the prison at the same time those men I missed had been in complete lock down. The weight of it descended on me on the drive past the old railroad tracks and buildings that used to be a comforting part of my drive.
Of course, I have always known that my experience as a visitor is far different than that of my students living inside. Surviving. My privilege, my access, my time, my ability to move. Even in a place like Walker, where so many more things are possible than in typical prison settings, all of that is now on an indefinite hold. These men are frozen. Waiting. Some I know are getting close to parole. Others are days away from seeing family and loved ones, but now everything is still. I hope they are using the sketchbooks I handed out on their first day in class. Perhaps those pages can be a place to release and gather and inspire while they wait. I know they are still finding ways to talk and argue and laugh. I hope they know I miss our time together. Most of all, I hope they are safe.
Kris Bespalec is an artist, educator and mother living in Chattanooga, TN. She serves as the Manager of School and Teacher Programs at the Hunter Museum of American Art. Artistically her work integrates found and precious objects, encapsulating the fragile life of memory while reflecting on the plural acts of womanhood. As an educator she promotes collaborative learning with emphasis on personal skills, social justice and applied history as it relates to contemporary issues.