Veteran’s Day brought the chairperson of the National Endowment for the Arts, Mary Anne Carter, inside San Quentin to mingle with artists and incarcerated veterans. Joining Carter was Alma Robinson, executive director of California Lawyers for the Arts (CLA).
“From the moment I walked in this room I was blown away by the visit and beautiful art,” Carter said after she walked into the prison’s art studio. “I look around at these images and I know that could be in any gallery in the world.”
SQ resident Scott Mckinstry has been involved with Arts in Corrections (AIC), sponsored by the William James Association since 2001.
Mckinstry said that he’s known people involved with AIC who later earned parole.
“Their involvement in the arts program helped them communicate better,” McKinstry said. “I got interested in arts for my rehabilitation. I read a study that that showed how the skills learned from art are not like the traditional kinds of learning. The learning from art is used right after you’ve learned them.”
When statewide budget cuts were imposed in the mid-2000s, Arts in Corrections (AIC) funds were also reduced. Some volunteer artists, however, continued devoting time to the prisoners and still taught inside. From that experience, Robinson said that she learned how much the cuts affected incarcerated artists.
“It taught them time management and discipline,” Robinson said of the incarcerated artists.
Robinson said that after telling prison officials about the resilience of the incarcerated artists, the state restored funding for arts in corrections. She added that the “positive message” incentivized art funding in five other states, Texas, Michigan, Ohio, Louisiana and New York.
When the visitors left the art studio they headed to a small bungalow on the prison’s Lower Yard to meet with participants in a veteran’s program and an artistic ensemble program.
Once inside the building, they were seated in a semi-circle.
The veterans write scripts based on their military backgrounds.
The plays address Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and other kinds of trauma that the veterans have experienced. Facilitators of VHV has discovered that incarcerated veterans’ inner reflective work through the VHV curriculum curtailed the suicide rates for incarcerated vets.
Chris Marshall and Juan Carlos Meza, who both performed in Shakespeare at SQ plays, gave the veterans acting training to help them tell their stories and deal with trauma and PTSD.
“In the beginning of the class, there was one participant who could not do a “trust fall,” but by the end even he was able to do it,” Meza said. “Sometimes, acting out the feeling is better than dealing with it from any other method.”
Marshall added, “By acting it out or seeing others act it out, there is sympathy, empathy to see it in third person allows forgiveness for self and others. The release is a physical sensation.”
Marshall explained that participants co-write the performances to get a full arc of stories.
“It takes about four months to figure out how to share the story,” Marshall said. “Last year there were seven drafts before we got one that worked.”
Meza demonstrated how to create a story by asking four people from the audience to the center of the circle to face each other.
He asked the four to be a rock. Then he called two other people from the audience and asked them to be “fire” by kneeling with hands up imitating flames—fingers wagging.
Meza then asked the audience if they remembered campfire stories.
“Weren’t those the good days?” Meza asked. “It was done to tell stories, when you see fires, you see comfort. But we don’t have that today. Everyone wants to be heard, number one is feelings, everyone wants to be felt and know what you’re not alone, but the essential one is love—the things that keeps the fire going is our stories.”
At the end of her visit, Carter said, “What has stuck with me the most is talking to the individual artists—the hope they see. Moreover, the arts have become their release for understanding how to change their life and in some cases why their life has to be changed.”