Prison Art: Drawing Is an Outlet and Source of Income for Incarcerated People
$7.50 may not seem like a lot of money, but to me, spending $7.50 on a 12-set of Reeves pencils meant I couldn’t spend it for food from the inmate commissary. I was only 16 years old when I was incarcerated, and by the time I was 17 I had been sentenced to 45 years and shipped to a maximum-security prison in the state of Illinois. I lasted all but two days in general population before I got in trouble, which landed me in segregation for six months. While in segregation, I was transferred to Stateville Correctional Center, considered one of the most dangerous prisons in the state. I endured harsh winter weather, off-putting prison food, trying to stay sane from being cooped up in a concrete box 24/7, and having no funds to purchase necessities.
Luckily, other prisoners looked out for me. One prisoner was an artist who made greeting cards to sell on the gallery in exchange for commissary items. When I looked into his cell he had a table full of hygiene items — it looked like a mini store in there. I asked how he acquired all of it and he replied, "hustling." He showed me the greeting cards he was working on and said he sold each card for $2. This man had his own little enterprise in segregation, and I told myself I needed to follow in his footsteps to acquire financial freedom.
Living in prison is costly, and making money behind bars is difficult. A person in here can make the most by selling illegal drugs, but it is a dangerous risk that can land you in segregation for six months if caught, plus the possibility of getting a new charge and more prison time. Another way to make money is getting a job: working to maintain the prison, working as a cook in the inmate kitchen, being a galley porter, working at the inmate laundry services, etc. Unfortunately, these jobs only pay about $15-30 a month for 40-plus hours of hard labor. Then there are the “prison professions” you can hustle on your own that include cutting hair, tattooing, lending out food with interest, and my favorite — drawing.
I planned on starting my own greeting card enterprise but lacked the tools and money to purchase them, so I worked with what I had — a pen and a few sheets of paper. I borrowed a coloring book from the same artist, traced a cartoon character on one of the sheets and colored in the dark spots with the pen as best as I could. When I finished, I thought I'd done a good job and was on my way to entrepreneurship. Unfortunately, no one thought my work was worth purchasing. I kept doodling on and off and tried to draw portraits with a pen, but the results were horrific.
Upon coming out of segregation, I was yet again faced with the general population in a maximum-security prison and the task of staying out of trouble. My financial situation was also as bad as ever. I was incarcerated at such a young age that I had no savings, no assets to sell off, and no family to rely on financially besides my mom, who was a single parent on social security still raising my younger brother.
I came across another artist who was selling commissioned portraits. When I asked how much he was selling his portraits for, he responded, "Depends, but anywhere from $100 up." $100 for a portrait?! I thought. I'm going to make bank! Again, my problems were no materials, no artistic talent, and no financial means to purchase tools. But the universe works in mysterious ways, and right before my unit went to shop at the commissary, my mother sent me some money to purchase necessities.
I bought some much-needed clothes and hygiene items, and had $7.50 left. I was about to buy some Hershey's chocolate bars, but then noticed that there was a pack of drawing pencils on sale. An important decision had to be made: do I satisfy my chocolate urge and put off the pencils until next time, or do I buy these pencils now and try to start working as an artist? It may seem like an easy choice, but I was 19, impulsive, had poor decision-making skills, and did I already mention I really liked chocolate?
I ended up purchasing the 12-set of Reeves pencils and placed the box in my pants pocket so they wouldn’t get damaged. Upon returning to my cell, I opened the box and took all the pencils out, laying them on my rusty table that was screwed into the concrete wall. I looked at each pencil intently and even put them up to my nose to smell the wood and lead, which reminded me of school. I noticed that each pencil had different letters and numbers like 4H, B, and B6 stamped on them. I read the back of the box they came in and found out that each pencil had a degree of hardness and softness which would make darker or softer marks on paper. After taking in the sight, feel, and smell of the pencils, it was time to start drawing. I grabbed some paper and played with each one by making little boxes and filling them in to see the darkness and lightness of each.
Once I was familiar with that, I grabbed some magazines and began drawing every individual nose, eye, ear, lips and pair of eyebrows I could find. I did this for days on end until I gained the confidence to draw complete faces and hair. I sat on that steel stool and shaky table for what seemed like the whole summer, practicing and trying to perfect my craft until one person saw me working and asked how much I'd charge him for a portrait of his daughter. I wasn't ready for the question and doubt crept into my mind, but I replied that I'd do it for $10 in commissary food. He agreed to the price, brought me his daughter’s photo along with the food items, and that day I began my career as an artist.
I haven't stopped drawing since, and I still have some of the original pencils I began with. I must have made about $2,000 with those pencils alone, but they've brought me riches much greater than money. Those pencils gave me a purpose every morning to wake up and get to work on the next drawing while living in a hostile environment, where trouble is always around the corner. They taught me the value of hard work and entrepreneurship. They gave me the title of “artist” and a sense of accomplishment when I'd win art contests sponsored by the prison administration.
As an artist, I've been blessed with the ability to give back to the community, raising funds for Midwest Books to Prisoners by donating my first art exhibit to their Running Down the Walls Chicago event; raising money for striking Columbia University student workers by auctioning off a commissioned portrait; and bringing awareness to great civil rights leaders, activists and revolutionaries in my first solo art show through the Angelica Kauffman Gallery.
On top of that, I've met wonderful people through my art and developed genuine friendships with people who commissioned art pieces from me. They furthered my reach to the world by awakening my untapped literary potential and helping me publish work, which is something I had never even thought I could do. They set up social accounts where people can view my paintings, expanded my voice past these walls, and helped me acquire a spot in an art gallery, but most importantly they treated me like a human being who holds value in the world.
I've grown tremendously through all my art, art dealings, and people I've come to know because of my art, and I owe it all to the 12-set of Reeves pencils.
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Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue
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