The beauty in the beast

A biweekly column in which various contributors from both sides of prison walls explore common ground for effecting change.

bridgingthegap

 

Art doesn’t happen by itself. It comes from work and drive and soul. Beauty comes from toil and the nicks and scrapes of the unforgiving world. People work to make their lives meaningful.

My best friends are artists. They write and draw and paint. They are also prisoners, so most often their galleries and publicists are in cells or etched onto somebody’s body. They do it because the way they live their lives is as much the art they create as the poems they write or the paintings they make.

For five years I worked on the yard crew at Stillwater. I mowed a lot of grass during the summer and got up at four in the morning to shovel snow in the winter. But in spring, we planted. It was what made the job meaningful for me.

(stock photo)
(stock photo)

When I started, we planted wherever we could create a bed: petunias and every kind of lily in large sections on the walkway to industry, hostas in the courtyard of the treatment unit, and hydrangeas on the hill of the old health service building. And every year roses came back next to the shop.

We planted snap dragons and impatiens along stretches of sidewalk, in beds that rooted right up against old buildings, against the bricks and mortar and fencing that don’t represent beauty or life. They represent impersonal history and ghosts of something forgotten.

Just as crafting a story or painting a canvas, working the ground isn’t easy. There is the personal toll it takes from a body and the time it takes from one’s life. There’s the tilling and the planting and the weeding. The watering every day is the easiest part.

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If law is the language of power, then art is the language of the revolutionary. Law might free your body, but art can free your soul.

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In early summer there are the wars with invading Japanese beetles and wars of perception. So often every year, there were guards and inmates that asked the same questions about why we had flowers in a prison. Plenty said we were just putting a pretty dress on something ugly.

I wanted to tell them it’s because there is permanence to the ugly in the buildings and the concrete that encompasses depression and madness and violence and abuse and neglect. We only get short seasons with the beautiful.

Yet every spring there are fewer places to plant. Nobody ever asked why we had so much concrete, or so much sadness. There was an old man on the crew whose bad back didn’t care about what was beautiful or alive; he was ready to be dead years ago.

One of the guys I worked with wanted to put concrete over everything. I don’t think he knew what I meant when I told him, “Yeah, and we should just give up on all the people that live here, too.”

One year, a transport vehicle backed over one of the beds at least 10 times. We had to get our hand shovels and reconstruct the knocked-over landscape block, dig up or patch up the pulverized plants, and turn the soil over again and again. Guys stepped on flowers or threw garbage in the bed, but mostly the flowers were just there, without an explanation.

They weren’t there to reduce recidivism or make anybody who saw them better people. But just as often, there were the people that told us how beautiful it was and made us realize how necessary they were in contrast to everything else about the place.

The gardens unconsciously represent life in all of its colors, not just the industrial gray tones that come to define prison landscapes. The buildings are a hundred years old, and despite the deterioration they stay up, get reinforced.

The flowers die in fall, or get plucked before the first freeze. We just hope there will be space for the flowers the next spring. There are flowers that grow in fields, or come up from the cracks in the concrete, but so many more seeds die because there is no one there to take care of them.

We would all like to see the best, most beautiful aspects of our human nature come out; we’ve all been plenty ugly during our lives. It’s easy to get the ugly from someone. If you want the beautiful, you have to cultivate it.

Real lives live in these places — real artists. The existence of artists tells us these places are still alive. They can always build more buildings that stay up forever. They are just buildings. It’s just a room until you put a person in it. It’s a cell when you lock it and call him a prisoner.

If law is the language of power, then art is the language of the revolutionary. Law might free your body, but art can free your soul.

Support incarcerated artist communities.

 

Ezekiel Caligiuri is prison justice organizer and arts coordinator for Voices for Racial Justice and a participant in Voices’ “Bridging the Gap” partnership. Reader responses are welcome to info@voicesforracialjustice.org. To learn more about the organization’s work, visit www.voicesforracialjustice.org.