They help prisoners brush a dab of joy into jail life Volunteers to show inmates' artworks at Parkton arts festival tomorrow

October 09, 1992|By Meredith Schlow | Meredith Schlow,Staff Writer

The first time Sarah Nevells set foot in a jail, what stuck in her mind was the sight of barbed wire encircling the place and the sound of iron doors locking behind her.

President of a non-profit organization that works with inmates, Ms. Nevells says that today, four years later, her thoughts of her monthly trips to Maryland's prisons revolve around the people inside, not the intimidating surroundings.

Ms. Nevells is president of the Burning Bush, a non-profit organization that provides donated art supplies and encouragement to prisoners who want to use their artistic talents.

Tomorrow, the Taneytown-based organization will exhibit and sell inmate artwork at the Pine Grove United Methodist Church's arts festival in Parkton. All proceeds go to the artists.

Ms. Nevells and about 10 other volunteers go in small groups one evening a month to the Jessup Pre-Release Unit, the Maryland House of Correction and the Frederick Women's Detention Center, where they work with inmates. Getting into the prison system isn't always easy. The women are limited as to the supplies and tools they are permitted to take inside with them.

"In most of the prison system, they're not dying for you to come in and do this," says Sandra King, the group's secretary and public relations chief. "It's a lot of extra work for the people in the system. And it's hard to gain access."

Ms. Nevells says that each prison has its own set of rules and some don't even let the volunteers leave art supplies for the inmates.

Stories help keep the volunteers enthusiactic and the program alive.

There's the one about the women at the Frederick jail who gave their children Christmas cards they made from paper garbage scraps glued together with Karo syrup.

"Prison should be to rehabilitate," says Ms. King.

"We put people in prison, and they sit there, and then we let them out and we expect them to be magically different. How is that possible?"

Considerable inmate interest in the program has forced the women to limit the size of their groups in each prison to 15 or so artists, Ms. Nevells says.

"We have to interact with each prisoner," she says. "It can be very stressful."

An artist who has waited a month for an art session is likely to be disappointed if there is a lack of one-on-one attention, she says.

Herman Ward, an inmate at the House of Correction in Jessup, has been painting for 30 years and joined the Burning Bush sessions when the group started going to the prison about a year and a half ago.

In addition to welcoming the art supplies and support the volunteers bring, Ward says, he looks forward to feedback about his work.

"That gives many of us artists initiative to move on and do better," says Ward, 56.

He says the message he tries to convey in his paintings hasn't changed since he was imprisoned two years ago.

"Most of my work is some commentary," says Ward, whose work will be exhibited at Pine Grove.

"It is tailored toward the abandoned, and also the apocalypse. And I'm under great stress in presenting that.

"I want it to be plain enough artistically that the viewer will be able to understand what I'm saying."

Even though people such as Ward benefit from every visit, Ms. Nevells acknowledges that there are times when, after a full day's work, she'd rather spend the evening at home than at a prison.

"But after you leave there, there's is just this sense of 'what a great evening,' " she says. "It's always a sense of exhilaration, a feeling that there is hope for some of these people."

The volunteers say they are careful not to be judgmental of an artist's work or background.

"People have asked us, 'Oh, do you pray with these men?' " Ms. King says.

"But we have been very careful to make sure that the people who want to work with us can embrace that philosophy of non-judgmental thinking. We're very careful not to try and foist our beliefs on any of the inmates. We don't have any answers."

The Burning Bush will be one of 25 exhibits at Pine Grove's first annual Arts in the Park Festival, which will run from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. tomorrow on the church grounds at 19401 Middletown Road in Parkton.

There also will be food, entertainment, children's activities, pony rides and face-painting. The rain date is Saturday, Oct. 17.

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