By Kelsey Stillwell (written last year during her study abroad experience)
It was in my first weekly visit that I found myself surrounded by eyes, multiple sets of eyes that were scanning every detail of my face and body. Trapped in the middle of this circle, motionless, and vulnerable. The focused face of artists, with their attention on me was intimidating. Sitting in the center of the room, I was on the opposite side of the paper than I was used to. I was now their new subject, sitting in a pose that became uncomfortable in a matter of minutes. Trying not to move, and stare at one spot. Modeling is hard.
I didn’t know many of their names, much less their stories. But they were kind, polite, and welcoming to a new visitor. They sensed my discomfort and often asked if I needed a break, or to stretch. I was not uncomfortable with where I was; I was uncomfortable with the attention, the stillness, and the vulnerability. In a few hours, I would leave, take off my badge, get my phone and ID from the guards, and walk out the door beyond the walls that kept them in. Volunteering in a prison carries with it dimensions that are hard to imagine.
Each week their welcome becomes warmer out of gratitude for a dedicated visitor. The paintings on the walls are constantly changing; the artists do not. I accompany my mentor, Tina Bailey, who leads a dance class and drawing class and help how I can, most often by modeling. A western face with a button nose poses a different and challenging composition. I have slowly gotten to know the participants of the art program. It is a program that was started by Myuran, an incredible artist and leader, sentenced with the death penalty. Their dedication to the program allows their use of canvas, brushes, and paints, and a studio to work in. It gives them a chance to improve their art, a place to be creative and expressive, and a community. It is a more creative and therapeutic community than the rest of the prison has to offer. Some lose their minds; some become even more addicted to drugs, but this group chooses art. A program to find leadership and responsibility in, and to learn.
For many, their days are spent confined in their cells, a choice they have made for themselves. This art program, however, offers a different option, one of dignity and responsibility. My involvement in the art and dance class is just a small part of what it has to offer. Studios include space and resources for silver workshop, screen-printing, computer graphics, sewing, and handicraft. Each of these practices has devoted artists, and relies on volunteers to come teach. The experts, who only come once or twice when paid, leave only a piece of their skill set; it is the time, attention, and relationships of regular volunteers that matter the most.
Listening to Tina and being a part of her painting class, I have learned lessons in art and relationships. Offering guidance and small suggestions, Tina does not ever try to change the style that each artists uses, though some are much more attractive than others. The opportunity to learn how to solve problems for themselves is a skill that will be more useful in the world when they leave the prison than their ability to paint. This hour and a half class once a week is approached with the hope that practicing and challenging how they draw and paint will also hold value that will be beneficial for them beyond their paintbrush, outside these walls. When they intentionally choose to be a part of something positive in prison, their chances of adjusting in the real world increase. Seeing this positive work in a prison in the form of art is something I am grateful to have gotten a glimpse of. I continue to go with Tina, and it is usually the highlight of my week. I look forward to what more there is in store for this program.
The modeling experience has changed drastically in the few weeks since I first began. My face fills their sketchbooks, their improvement over the time is evident. Still quiet hours of modeling don’t feel as uncomfortable anymore. We laugh when my face itches beyond what I can bear. The serious ones let me know when I have moved too much. I now know many of their names, where they are from, and what they miss most about home and freedom.
Nick shares surfing stories and laughs at the thought of me attempting to learn. He shows me the basics on the surfboards that Mosen has made himself in the courtyard. Ann talks about what it is like in her homeland of Thailand, and her favorite foods. Ali asks for advice in photoshop, but ends up teaching me the art of t-shirt design, as he shares his original designs that bleed raw emotions of life in prison onto the fabric. I do not mind sitting still to model for this class, but it is the moments in between, getting to know the artists, that mean the most to me. Hearing stories from those with whom I am able to communicate, and simply watching them work when the language barrier is too great.
Their welcoming smiles, hugs and constant gratitude make me wonder what it is that I am offering that they could be thankful for. I am just there to assist the teacher, and most of the times do not even feel like I am doing that. I just sit, in the middle of the circle, as motionless as possible in an uncomfortable position, trying my best to be a decent model. It is a different type of trust, to allow someone to draw what they see you to be. This trust has slowly become more effortless for me, and allows them the confidence to be proud of what they create. I like to think that my few moments frozen and vulnerable are able to offer them a chance to escape. Give them a few moments of freedom to create, explore, and learn. Maybe not, but I hope so because all I have to offer is a new face to draw. That and a smile, a prayer, relationship, dignity, and a voice to their story.
While studying in Bali, Indonesia for a semester, I assisted Tina Bailey with her volunteer work with the art program in Kerobokan prison in Denpasar. The art program was started by Myuran Sukumaran in 2009 as a small painting project. It has grown into a multi faceted program that allows prisoners a place to study art. If you would like to know more about what Tina Bailey does with the program or ways you can help you may contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org
Please take the time to learn more about Myuron’s story at www.mercycampaign.org . Since the writing of this article, the need for advocacy as increased. Myuron’s plea for clemency has been rejected by the president; and unless something changes, he could be executed within this month. This site has a petition out requesting the president to reexamine Myuron’s case with hopes to reduce it to a life sentence because of the positive influence and life changes he has made.