Art in Dark Places

Detail, Joseph Bathanti poem, "The Sick Room"Recently I delved with a group of over thirty people in a conversation about one artist’s practice. It happened on the highly secure unit of a maximum security prison.

I invited Kiki Farish to join me on a pilot program to bring professional artists to a class taught by an art therapist. I was very nervous going in, particularly because I realized the inmates wouldn’t be constrained and no guard would be present within the room (one did remain outside). Chalk it up to my watching one too many episodes of Sons of Anarchy.

It was a pretty small room with a very high ceiling. Some of the men carried pencils and paper with them. The first thing I noticed was their deep, focused concentration.

I’ve written about Kiki’s work before, and since then, we’ve become good friends. In addition to being a dynamite artist, she’s also a wonderful educator, something I saw first-hand today. She kept returning to the fact that making art involves a series of skills that anyone with the desire to can learn, such as the golden mean. The rules relate to how we see and even to our own dimensions (the ratio of our head to our bodies), and so while artistic decisions may seem to be intuitive, and many become so over time, it is crucial to learn these rules in order to communicate universally.

One of the pieces she brought in was inspired by the poem “The Sick Room,” written by the poet laureate of North Carolina, Joseph Bathanti. From his collection, Concertina, the poems are lyrical narratives of his time working in a North Carolina correctional center 36 years ago.

We passed around copies, and Kiki asked the men to read it aloud. Their open couplet format is ideal for reading aloud. They did so, and beautifully. A man sitting near me began with a clear, even voice. A man sitting across from him took the next couplet, then someone from across the room chimed in. The volunteers read from all corners of the room, back and forth, organically, with effortless flow, and nearly no overlapping of voices, reading lines like,

“Don’t trust him,” the guards warned me.

“If you met him on the street,

he’d cut your throat for your shoelaces.”

But I hadn’t met him on the street

It was moving to witness. The poem was about a man who overdosed and was in the infirmary after having fasted for Ramadan. Swallowed, the final word of the poem, is where Kiki focused in her graphite on claybord artwork.

Her signature “scribbles” give way to the word ‘swallowed’ stenciled at the center near a lily. One participant spoke of swallowing indignities, and the subject of the poem being done with that. We discussed how lines convey emotion: the line quality expresses a range of feelings, whether or not you can articulate it or simply feel it when you look with care-it’s a language to build with just like the alphabet.

The participants asked questions as astute as I’ve heard from audiences at public talks held at art centers and colleges. Their attention, interest, and engagement melted my fear. Ethan Berry once said, “fear is about things imagined, not experienced.” I felt my world expand.

Sometimes my hand aches when it is not holding my iphone. This evening, when I’d normally be listening to something and checking it occasionally as I walk my dog and push the stroller through my neighborhood, I realized that I wanted to keep that sound off.

About Annah Lee

Annah Lee is the Director of Artistic Programs at Artspace.

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