Wednesday, March 24, 2010

A simple Fork

Well last night was not as uplifting as our usual sessions. T. one of our strongest participants just recently got paroled and she is disconnecting with us. She was very agitated and frustrated last night--painting did nothing to help. K. found a fork in the bottom of my painting bag. Who knows how that got there. She held it for a long time and said, "a fork... a real fork... it has been years since I touched a real fork." I am always stunned when reminded of the deprivation many of the women face on a regular basis and the importance and significance of little things.

Next Week Mary Swander from ISU, Iowa's Poet Laureate will visit the prison to do a reading for our Women in Exile project. We are all very excited. Many of the women finished paintings tonight, that was very exciting. I hope to post images of those soon.
Our performance for the public is at Shambaugh Auditorium on April 26 and at the prison on May 4.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Big News for Rebecca McCray and Tuesday Night update

Slide Show of wonderful images

Tuesday night was great. We were accompanied by Ian Martin, a journalism student from UI, Felix De La Concha (, Ana Merino, Jefri Palermo, Riley Hanick, and of course Rebecca McCray. What a carload of talent and enthusiasm. We did alot of painting, I will post photos of our portraits so far later this week, and some great writing too. The women are really starting to fill their journals with all kinds of ephemera, writing, and personal photographs. We have our second tour date for the paintings at the Whispers and Screams Conference in Ames in May of 2010.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Last week...

I am still floored by the class we had last week.As we walked into our classroom T. met us on the sidewalk and followed us to the door. She has recently moved outside the fence to the work release part of the prison. I congratulated her and told her this was a major accomplishment. She said that there was no hope for her when she got out; she was going to be sent to work release in the same town where she had used and abused drugs. In her mind she would either die or end up back at ICIW. Later after we circled up to read T. read an amazing piece of prose about her experience as a survivor of sexual abuse. R. reacted with some anger and one of our new students, D. offered support. I was more or less speechless.I crossed the circle and gave T. a hug. I hope it was the right thing to do. T. went on to make the most amazing progress on her painting. She was euphoric the entire night. I think it was a very cathartic evening for her. Students like T. make me realize one reason why this work is so important. There are so few outlets for expression. On another note we have two former lovers in our class together. They are at odds with one another and are now under "investigation" because one read a poem that the other thought might be about her somehow. Things can be so tender and there is really no way to escape from each other in such a small community. Heartbreak must be hell. Another student K. lost her long time partner. She finally was released after almost 9 years in prison. K. was a real trooper and came to class, but she was clearly depressed.
We started working on the paintings and I think our first bit was very successful. R. another student asked me a very strange question, "would you look up me on the internet to see what people have written about me?" I said I would rather not know and was she sure she really wanted to know?" This is never a good idea. Knowing about a crime is like opening Pandora's box. It can get in the way of doing good work and doing no harm. Sometimes it seems like people who are incarcerated want to see if you will still accept them in spite of their crime.Part of it is building trust, but it is certainly not the best way to go about it. If the relationships you build focus on the knowledge you bring and the projects that are happening in class then the relationship won't be nearly as tangled or complicated. It is important to spare yourself some distance.
After our experience last week with all of the stories related to rape and sexual abuse I decided to sign up for training with the Rape Victim Advocacy Program in Iowa city. Hopefully I will learn more about how to handle such delicate situations.
Rebecca and Jefri are going tomorrow nigh; I can't wait to hear about their evening.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Oh what a night!

Oh What A Night!!!!
That is the song that echoed through my mind as we left the prison on Tuesday. Riley and Rebecca had prepared an amazing packet of readings for the women that included great writers like James Baldwin and Eudora Welty.The women also each chose one of the memoirs from the Iowa Women's Archive. I can't wait to hear what they think next week when we return. They also read from their own journals some amazing poems and prose. Y. read a poem about how the days pass after 23 years in prison like a slow motion fall on the ice. We all got shivers. Next week we will begin painting images. Wendy set up our first show at UNI in May!

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

A trip to the Iowa Women's Archive at the University of Iowa

It is such a wonderful moment when you design a project and all of the parts begin to fall into place. Kristin and I spent time at the Iowa Women's Archive last week and this week gathering materials for the women to read and taking photographs of photographs for them to use in their portraits.

In some ways it is overwhelming to open a box and see the whole of a person's life cataloged, labeled, and filed. It is amazing having their entire life history at your fingertips.Some of the memoirs were smaller or came without photographs. One was a collection of sprawled handwriting on spiral bound notebook paper clipped together with a safety pin. The content was really interesting. The archives also contained books published by women about their lives. These I ordered instead of copied. We hope to donate them to the library at ICIW.

Janet Weaver is the Associate Curator at the Iowa Womens' Archive. A historian by trade she was tremendously helpful in locating items in the archive that were intriguing, unusual, and exciting. Among some of the things she found was an oral history she recorded with Adella Martinez, Lupe Serrano, and Julio Serrano. It is filled with funny stories about these women and their experience growing up.

We also looked at the information about Ivory Winston, a famous singer from Ottumwa and Edna Griffin a Civil Rights Activist who was even followed by the FBI.
The Iowa Women's Archives is such an exciting place filled with treasures.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Tuesday night, January 5, 2009

Well our trip to the prison was uneventful, Wendy drove her small red Scion packed to the gills with us and a mountain of supplies. I neglected to tell the prison all of the supplies we would be bringing in --including our paint. There is a new sheriff in town and the rules have changed. We were allowed to bring in nearly everything except the paint. Luckily my art cabinet is still lovingly stocked with paint and other supplies.
Because of our lack of a list for all of the supplies it took us almost 20 minutes to get in, thus we were late. Luckily all of our students were able to come and we had a great class. I went over the research component of the project and asked the women to sign an IRB consent form if they were interested in participating. They noted that my title according to the IRB was Principle Investigator. That has very negative connotations for people in prison. I made a mental note to myself to let the IRB know about this. Next we briefly discussed the difference between a memoir and an autobiography. "R" one of our students said, "I've read tons of autobiographies, because I love to know about other people's lives, and let me tell you some are so boring.!" She went on to give us a quick review of a memoir she is currently reading. Later, I passed around a short chapter about writing a personal essay about a memory for homework. Finally we asked the women to bring pictures next week that they want to incorporate into their portraits.
Our main activity for the evening was to paint. The women each received a 16x20 primed wooden panel. They were instructed to cover up all of the white with a color that they mixed. We spent about 20 minutes creating under paintings and then cleaning up.
Next week Jefri, Riley, Rebecca, Lisa,Kristin, and myself hope to share a bit more about memoir and continue to work on the paintings. We also hope to give the women copies of memoirs from and about women in Iowa.
Today I am at the Iowa Women's Archive finding examples to share.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Our First Class

Our first session with the women was amazing. We introduced the project and all of the parts. The women were so excited about the partnership with the UI archive. They were also excited about the exhibition. It was important to reassure them that the painting portion of the class is achievable with the aid of our "secret process" to transfer photographs. I was given permission today to bring in a camera and take pictures of the women for the self-portraits. So next week we will prepare the surface of our canvas with an underpainting and then the following week we can transfer some images. The women all picked out at least one memoir from the archive to explore. They also used the idea of a time line to start working in their journal. They all approached this particular idea differently. Some drew a timeline, some chose to write about a point in their life. I will take some photos of the journals next week and share them on our blog. I also found out I can email the women via "O" mail. "O" stands for offender mail. Next week Rebecca and hopefully Riley will introduce ways to think about memoirs.
It was great to be back at the prison and touch base with some of the women I have known for many years. I am always renewed in my commitment to working in prisons with women when I return after a long absence. I have not been there since the summer. I also dropped off 1000.00 worth of yarn for the Blankets of Hope project. The women knit blankets for every girl at IJH and attach a handwritten letter that accompanies the blanket. The girls get the blankets on valentine's day. It is amazing. This is our second year. I have to start looking for a way to raise another 1000.00 pretty soon so we can continue the project.