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The Ultimate Insider Art

On Tennessee’s death row, the old aphorism applies: art is long, life is short.

Six artists gathered as they normally did on a Thursday night last January, around 6:30, ready to sculpt. They wore white cotton: V-neck shirts with short sleeves, and track pants with “TN DEPT OF CORRECTIONS” descending their legs. They had prepared hot chocolates in polystyrene cups for their teachers. But they were running late, and the drinks were getting cold.

The teachers — Robin Paris, Tom Williams, and Barbara Yontz — briskly made their way through the Riverbend Maximum Security Institution compound, accompanied by a young security guard with a short mohawk who was gobbling a muffin. Yontz pressed a large plastic container filled with art supplies against her chest. They passed security checkpoints, electric gates, heavy doors, buzz cut lawns, and a pale blue door lit from above — the execution chamber. “I don’t ever go in there. It freaks me out,” the guard said suddenly, her mouth full of muffin. “It smells like death, for real.”

They arrived at a windowless annex with fluorescent lights, polished floors, and a wheezing industrial air conditioner. The artists and teachers sat around a large white table. Each man took a baseball of white clay from the container and, without instruction, began pulling it to pieces.

Harold Wayne Nichols, a pale, balding 57-year-old, focused on his clay through dark-rimmed bifocal glasses, working it into a bust of a bald eagle, then gently pressing a blue pen lid into the head to give it a feathered texture. The bird was elegant and precise, as if Nichols were working from a biological illustration.

Donald Middlebrooks sat to his right, a bald, heavyset man of 55, with long fingernails that became caked and yellow with clay as he sculpted. He rolled small pieces of clay into balls, flattened them into thick discs with his thumb, and stacked them like pancakes. “I’ll be walking and it’s like, boom, I’ll get a good idea. It jumps out. That’s why I’m sitting here playing with this dough. I’m waiting for something,” he said, speaking slowly, with drawn-out vowels.

"Yonder."

For nearly 90 minutes, the men worked on their sculptures. A murmur ebbed and flowed, but for most of the class the men crafted in silent stimulation. “It’s meditation for me,” said Abu-Ali Abdur’Rahman, a 67-year-old with the ripe voice of a preacher. He peered over his reading glasses at the other men with a sly expression and said, “It’s how I get away from people. It’s how I get away from the foolishness that goes on here.”

For the last four years, this group of men has created art as part of a program run by Paris and Williams, teachers at Nashville’s Watkins College of Art, Design and Film (and occasionally assisted by Yontz, a former teacher at Watkins). They have exhibited their work at galleries in Tennessee and New York, garnering publicity from news outlets drawn to the lurid stories behind the art: these artists are confined to Unit Two at Riverbend, Tennessee’s death row.

Similar art programs take place in prisons all across the United States, justified on the grounds of their rehabilitative virtues and therapeutic benefits. There are studies linking participation in such classes to improved educational outcomes and reduced recidivism rates. But these findings don’t apply to the Riverbend program, because these men are unlikely to re-enter society. Inmates on death row seldom do. Paris and Williams conduct the workshops – paying all the costs out of their own pockets – because they believe that all people have a right to self-expression. Even those sentenced to death.

Through the classes, the men have formed a sort of collective, exchanging books and supplies, collaborating on works, and exhibiting their art together. Each man is committed to art in a serious way: to making it, and learning about it, but most of all, to using it as a way of communicating with a society that has declared him unworthy to live. The work offends people: victim advocates criticize their exhibitions, questioning whether it is ethical to give these men a public platform. Even the teachers sometimes struggle to justify their work. But the men stand by their art because it signifies that they still have something to contribute to the world.

Life Inside

Essays by people in prison and others who have experience with the criminal justice system

Akil Jahi has woken up at 3:30 a.m. for so many years now that he no longer needs an alarm. He meditates first thing in the morning, because there’s a lot of negative stuff out there and he needs to be centered before he leaves his cell.

At 4:45, he reports for work in the kitchen, where he cooks breakfast for his fellow inmates – maybe eggs and meat or pancakes, but always potatoes. Lunch is served at 11; dinner around 5 p.m. Jahi knows what the hours between each meal might contain. He is the spokesperson for his pod, so he might discuss a complaint with a corrections officer. He is a trained mediator, so he might help two men resolve a conflict. After work, he can sit with his friends in the common room or shoot hoops in the caged, concrete recreation yard. Some nights he can attend classes — such as his weekly art lesson with Paris and Williams. Otherwise, he will return to his cell to pass the hours before bed around 10:30 p.m., knowing very well what the following day will bring.

Jahi is 47, a sturdy man with an imposing presence, but a polite quietude. Born in Memphis, he was named Preston Carter, but changed it in 1996 at Riverbend, where he is imprisoned for double homicide. While on trial, he explained that he chose his new name from a book: Akil, in Arabic, means “one who uses reason,” and Jahi is Swahili for “dignity.”

He struggled through school, eventually dropping out at 17. (Later, when he stood trial, the clinical psychologist Dr. Fred A. Steinberg testified that Jahi had “borderline intellectual functioning.”) Soon after, the trouble started: days of drinking and smoking marijuana. Then the charges: Burglary of a vehicle. Theft less than $500. In March 1993, two months before he was arrested for double homicide, he stole $90 worth of cash and food stamps, plus some candy, from a convenience store. Jahi has lived at Riverbend since 1995, when he was 24. “That’s when my life kind of stopped,” he said, his voice a languorous drawl.

According to police records, Jahi was arrested late one night in May 1993, and brought in for questioning by Sergeant Mike Houston of the Memphis Police Department. Houston asked Jahi if he knew who was responsible for killing a young married couple named Thomas and Tensia Jackson the previous morning. Jahi responded: “Yes. I am.”

Twenty-four hours earlier, Jahi and two men had knocked on the Jackson family’s apartment door, believing a drug dealer resided there. They planned to rob the place and, after realizing they had the wrong house, went ahead regardless. Tensia, 24, was later found in the bathroom, backed in to the space between the toilet and the wall, lying in a still, dark pool. Thomas, 26, was found in a bedroom closet, crouched motionless against the wall. Jahi had shot both in the head. Their toddler daughter, Tierney, was found alive, lying next to her father, her nightgown wet with urine and blood.

Katherine Lawson, a Memphis counsellor and psychologist, attended church with Tensia’s parents, and witnessing their subsequent grief inspired her to set up Victims to Victory, a support organization for the families of homicide victims. Lawson believes the art of prisoners, like Jahi, could traumatize those affected by their crimes, and that exhibitors owe it to the families of the deceased to contact them – a courtesy Paris and Williams avoid. “To not even engage victims or notify victims that this is something to be considered, to me, is simply heinous,” said Lawson. (Through Lawson, Tensia’s parents declined to discuss Jahi.)

“You can’t pretend these people have not created holes in the world, that they haven’t created rips in the social fabric which have deeply impacted people,” said Rachel Marie-Crane Williams, chair of the gender, women and sexuality studies department at the University of Iowa, who has taught art to inmates since 1994. “I can see why it would be incredibly traumatizing to realize you’re looking at a piece of work made by someone who has deeply impacted you,” she said, while noting victims won’t have a unanimous response to the art.

Anger at the privilege these men are given; sympathy for their condition; respect for their skill; pity for their fate: “You can’t walk away from that art without feeling something,” said Williams. “People are forced to wrestle with their admiration and empathy as well as their revulsion.”

Jahi had never made art before joining the program at Riverbend. He belonged to a philosophy discussion group at the prison run by Lisa Guenther, an associate professor of philosophy at Vanderbilt University. In late 2012, the group members began thinking about projects to action the topics they’d discussed, and someone suggested an art exhibition. The idea surprised Guenther, because art had never come up in class, but she arranged for them to display work they produced on their own, without lessons or a brief, at Vanderbilt’s Sarratt Gallery in January 2013.

While she felt philosophically assured in her work with the men, as Guenther curated the show, some questions began to trouble her, she recalled. These were men found guilty of killing another person — in some cases, multiple people. How might that violence resonate in public? Say the family of a victim or the survivor of an attack walked into the gallery and found the very fact of the exhibition offensive; how could she justify it? Was she betraying the deceased?

These questions didn't occur to Tom Williams as he observed the art: the paintings of cell interiors, the tiny woven chairs and footrests made from toilet paper rolls, the postcards on which inmates scrawled fanciful instructions for viewers.

To Williams, the exhibit “allowed you to access them as individuals outside the lurid narrative of their crimes,” he recalled. He invited Guenther to speak to his students. In the summer of 2013, Guenther took sabbatical, and asked Paris and Williams to run art lessons for the men while she was away. On her return, the philosophy group resumed, and the art classes continued on a different night.

Paris and Williams came to see their jobs not only as teachers, but as translators between the prison and the public. While preparing their first exhibition in late 2013, the pair found themselves facing the same moral questions that Guenther had encountered. Together they decided that, if they were going to bring these men’s voices into the public, they had a responsibility to understand what they’d been convicted of. Taking the task slowly, they read each man’s trial brief, downloading them from the website Murderpedia.org.

The pair struggled to reconcile the kind and thoughtful artists they taught with those they read about. They could see that the men had grown into different people while incarcerated. But their perceptions were irreversibly altered.

“There were always figures we struggled with more than others,” said Williams. Hardest of all was Harold Wayne Nichols, who was sentenced to death in December 1990. Nichols broke into the Chattanooga home of 21-year-old Karen Pulley, raped her, then beat her with a plank of wood. She later died in hospital. In the four months between Pulley’s death and Nichols’ arrest, he raped four more women.

"Starry Night."

“He’s just so thoughtful and creative. He has a very precise drawing style. He’s an interesting guy, but his crime was very, very serious and it’s hard to justify.” said Williams.

Paris added: “And I look at him, every time I go in, and I think about it.”

Thick walls, poor lighting, small windows, and locked doors do not seem ripe conditions for creativity. In its shallowest sense, the genre “prison art” presents a paradox, wrote Roger Cardinal, an emeritus professor of literary and visual studies at the University of Kent and author of the 1972 book Outsider Art. “If we at all associate artmaking with the unfettered flight of the creative impulse, then it would hardly seem to take off at all behind bars.”

Nonetheless, there is an unlikely tradition of artmaking in prisons. It stretches at least as far back as ancient Pompeii, where enslaved gladiators scratched graffiti into their cell walls. “Prison art is probably as old as the institution of prison itself,” the prison art therapist Will Ursprung has written.

Most prison art is not made to be exhibited, said the University of Iowa’s Rachel Marie-Crane Williams. Some prisoners make art as a way to distract themselves, or for therapeutic reasons. Some build reputations among fellow inmates and corrections officers for their work, and they can gift or trade it, so art becomes a source of esteem – and currency.

Those who do exhibit their work, like the Riverbend collective, communicate with the public in a way few inmates can. The art offers viewers an insight into an unfamiliar part of society, and the minds of those who live there, said Williams. “There’s some level of voyeurism: the public is like, ‘ooh what did these monsters make.’ But to some degree, there’s an openness and willingness to see the multiple facets of who this person is - they’re not just the crimes they committed.”

The Riverbend artists recognize that, being on death row, they are perceived as the worst of society’s worst, and see art as a way to convey their moral growth, their spirituality, their redemption. Abu-Ali Abdur’Rahman, for example, features birds in almost every painting. “It’s a sign of chirping, and feeling good, and love, and beauty, and summertime, and spring,” he said. “That’s my message to the world: when we show something that’s innocent like a bird, it should give you pause to think, man, who did this? That’s supposed to be a killer.”

Opposition to prison art is sometimes rooted in the belief that making art is a supplement to life - a luxury that prisoners lose the right to because of their crimes, said Williams. “Some people see art as a recreational activity and feel that, when people are in prison, they shouldn’t have access to anything pleasurable or recreational,” she said. “For me it’s a question, in some ways, of human rights: part of being a human is being able to express yourself.”

To express themselves, the Riverbend artists use materials that typically don’t make it past prison walls: clay, which can clog locks; glue; big rolls of paper; scissors; optical tools like the camera lucida, a prism on a bendy arm that clamps to a table but which, Tom Williams observed, “looks like it could be transformed into a weapon.”

The classes began at a time when Riverbend employed a progressive warden and chaplain, who were dedicated to creating meaningful classes for the men beyond the bible study groups then on offer. In time, staff members changed, but the art classes continued, remaining low-maintenance and trouble-free. “The prison trusts us now. They don’t think of us as a threat, which is good, because we’re not,” said Paris. The teachers keep to themselves and don’t cause problems, and the corrections officers leave them to make art. “It’s amazing what we get away with,” she said.

Riverbend warden Tony Mays was unavailable to discuss the art program, but, in an email, Tennessee Department of Correction director of communications Neysa Taylor said there had been no public resistance to the classes. The prison stands by the program for its rehabilitative benefits, despite the fact the participants may not return to public life. “Rehab programming and the subsequent behavioral changes contribute to a safer prison environment for staff and inmates,” said Taylor.

Only once has Riverbend staff raised concerns with the teachers, in December 2015. After receiving a complaint about an exhibition of the men’s work, then-chaplain Dan Haskins called Paris and Williams in for a meeting, and, after an hour, allowed the program to continue — with conditions. In future exhibitions, the men’s names should be withheld, and the teachers should co-ordinate with the Victim Services office of the Tennessee Department of Correction.

Paris and Williams understood Haskins’ stance, but the rule troubled them; they believed that objections to the work shouldn’t veto the men’s right to self-expression. In November 2016, they held a small show without consulting Victims Services. Some artists used pseudonyms, but those who had changed their names, like Akil Jahi, used their full name. “In the future, if the guys tell us they want their names on it, we’ll probably say yes, and deal with the consequences if they present themselves,” said Williams. “Although we will make it clear it might jeopardize the program if we do it.”

Jahi is a mainstay of the collective, sticking with the project even when it felt meaningless to continue. His motivation slumped in 2015, after his wife, Joan, died suddenly, at 56. In the classes following her death, grief swamped Jahi and he couldn’t take them seriously. During one lesson, he sat with Yontz, who was visiting that night. “I was telling her, I lost my flower. That’s what I always called my wife; she was my flower. Even when she was mean, I would say, ‘You’re my little flower,’” said Jahi.

"Joan."

Yontz suggested he paint a flower on a canvas stuck to some cardboard. She watched him fill the background the color of grapefruit flesh, and sketch a flower with broad petals like butterfly wings. He whitened them, layering each petal for depth, and added a green bulb to the center. It took him two weeks to complete the piece. He titled it “Joan.” “Now, all the flowers I do, they’re all dedicated to her,” he said.

Painting is a transcendental opportunity for Jahi, a way to escape the physical world of the prison. When he paints, he said, “I feel like I’ve left here. I leave here all the time. My mind is never really here. I’m aware of where I am but my mind has never been here.”

Currently, none of the Riverbend artists has an execution date, and through 2017 some made progress in their legal battles to live.

Two members of the collective, Abdur’Rahman and Middlebrooks, are part of a lawsuit challenging the state’s lethal injection protocol. In late March, the Tennessee Supreme Court upheld the procedure, so the inmates filed a petition with the U.S. Supreme Court, asking for a review. Around that time, one of the artists, Gdongalay Berry, had his sentence changed from death to life imprisonment, and he left death row - and the art collective - to live in Riverbend’s general population.

Jahi’s case, meanwhile, is slowly making its way through the thicket of legal appeals channels. His appeal attempts are based on his claims of intellectual disability. “This is not a case about whether or not Akil was involved in that terrible and tragic situation,” his lawyers, Kristen Stanley and Alexis Hoag, wrote in a 2015 petition challenging the validity of his imprisonment. “It is a case about whether our society will allow the state to execute a man who lacks basic reasoning, judgment, and impulse control.” After the trial court declined to consider both Jahi’s petition and a subsequent appeal, Stanley and Hoag filed a motion to reopen the petition last August. They declined to discuss the case.

For Jahi to speak openly about the Jacksons’ deaths would jeopardize his attempt at overturning his sentence. Making art, though, has helped him reflect on the events that led him to Riverbend, and taught him the value of taking time to stand still. “For a lot of us here,” said Jahi, “if we’d just paused for a moment, no matter what it is, none of us would be here…If you paused for a minute, you would make a better decision. But, you know, just acting out of anger, and not pausing for a moment, you would do things you would regret later.”

In the art class last January, Jahi worked faster than the other men, and had completed two sculptures when the teachers announced it was time to leave. One was a Koala bear head with small ears, a thin smile, and eyes poked in with the pointy end of a paintbrush. It lacked detail, texture, and proportional accuracy, but Paris handled the bear head with reverence, placing it gently in the large plastic container so she could take it home to bake. Jahi’s other piece was drying on folded paper towels: a pot painted pink. From it grew two yellow flowers, their stems hunched but their bulbs in full bloom.