His Mother Encouraged Him to Make Art With Visits to Museums
Ned Axthelm says he finds it rewarding to teach San Quentin and Solano prisoners the fine points of artistic painting.
“I like that art can enrich someone’s life and that enrichment can be in different ways for different people. But there are still similarities amongst the differences, and I like being able to see those things,” he said in a recent interview.
He began teaching San Quentin inmates about the art of painting a little over a year ago as part of the San Quentin Prison Arts Project. The project is sponsored by the William James Association.
Axthelm began his teaching career as a middle school teacher but decided he wanted to give his art career a shot. So he went back to school and earned a Master of Fine Arts degree from the Academy of Art University in San Francisco.
“I chose this school because they were more about the process of making art than just teaching about art,” he explained.
He says going to school helped him to speed up the process of trial and error. Axthelm says in school he was given mentors to help shepherd him through the process, and this helped him a lot because he likes to ask questions.
Axthelm has been out of school for two years and considers his main medium to be oil paint, although he says he has made art in a lot of different mediums. He used to express himself through sculpture, and he has done quite a bit of painting in acrylics and watercolor.
When he was a child, Axthelm says his mother encouraged him to make art by taking him to see paintings in museums and showing him the possibility of making art existed.
“For as long as I can remember, I’ve always had my hand in art. I’m a visual person; some people are into music, well, I’m just not that guy.”
When Axthelm was teaching middle school, his art took a back seat because he says he was exhausted, and he only made art on the side. This has changed since he went back to school and earned his art degree.
The first year out of school he showed his work in more than 20 art shows, and just last year he showed his work in another 12 art shows.
“Art is a long-haul game,” Axthelm admits. He knows he won’t get rich overnight being an artist, but he has met his goals so far. “I can look back at the last two years and be proud of what I’ve done.”
Axthelm says he got back into teaching when he started to make art full time, and he began to feel isolated. He sees art as a form of communication, and he missed the social interaction.
“Making art full time is a solitary act,” says Axthelm. He says he recognized his art would suffer from the lack of social interaction.
When a position opened up to be a teaching artist inside San Quentin, he went for it. “I decided to go with my intuition instead of trying to make a logical decision when I took this job, and it has been a good one.”
He has enjoyed his time so much at San Quentin that when the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation awarded money to work with the California Arts Council to open up new art programs inside of other California prisons, he took on the task of opening a program in Solano.
“I like that art can enrich someone’s life and that enrichment can be in different ways for different people. But there are still similarities amongst the differences”
Axthelm has been working for the past few months to get the new painting program up and running. “There are a few challenges to opening up a program like this, as you can imagine,” says Axthelm. He says figuring out time, space and other logistics has been the hardest.
“There is not even a sink to wash out brushes,” explained Axthelm. But he is not letting these details deter him. On Jan. 2, Axthelm opened up the first painting and drawing program at Solano.
The painting and drawing classes are being held in the visiting room along with a block printing class. He teaches two classes in Solano, one class for the Level II yards and another for the Level III yards.
He says he has 12 men in each class, but there is room for 16 men. He hopes that as the program becomes more established, both classes will fill up.
One of the issues that Axthelm may face in filling up the classes is that a prisoner has to be disciplinary-free for an extended period of time in order to be eligible to attend the class.
Part of the reason CDCR awarded funding for such programs is that previous studies have found that art programs in prison reduce disciplinary infractions. New programs like the one Axthelm is teaching in Solano will help to further study this effect.
Axthelm has recognized some important aspects of himself by teaching art in prison. “I’ve learned so much coming in here by being forced to communicate what I know.” He has to explain to his students what he is doing as an artist and why he is doing it, instead of just applying paint to the canvas. He says this has been an important lesson for him.