Art From Across Prison Lines

May 11, 1995|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,Sun Staff Writer

They get no respect, artist or subject, on either side of the bars.

The artists are prisoners -- reviled by a society bent on retribution. The subjects are correctional officers -- sick of being called "guards" while being asked to watch, counsel and defend themselves against the worst criminals police officers can catch.

Those stereotypes -- practically the only thing jailers and jailed can be said to share -- led prison officials to recruit six inmate artists from the Maryland Correctional Institution at Jessup to create a series of charcoal drawings of officers in honor of National Correctional Officers' Week.

It is a strange relationship between the men and women who hold the keys and those who are locked away. Officers and prisoners may practically live together for years, but they are never allowed to be exactly friends.

"You have a couple guys joking that you are doing the police pictures," said artist Kwaku Genfi, 39, who is serving a 10-year sentence for a narcotics violation. "I have no ill feelings about [the correctional officers]. They didn't put me in here."

"They're on that side of the line, I'm on this side of the line," said artist Lawrence Weisgal, a 43-year-old convicted armed robber. "They're doing a job; they're not trying to make us uncomfortable."

The drawings, along with photographs by Richard Tomlinson, show correctional officers and other prison staff members at work. A boot-camp officer shouts at a line of inmates; another peers out of a watch tower, alone; a third pauses to open a cell door with a huge, old-fashioned key.

None depicts the brutality some prisoners routinely complain of but can rarely document.

"This gives an insight into what the inmates think of us," said Patuxent Institution Officer Theressa Hodges, looking over the pictures yesterday at Baltimore City Community College, where they were displayed for the first time. "It's not like how they show us on the television shows -- like someone who thinks they have power but doesn't have it."

"You have a lot of educated correctional officers, and the inmates know that," said Officer Alfonzo Livingston, who works at the Baltimore City Detention Center and as a correctional training instructor. "You're not just watching over prisoners, you've got to be a social worker and a counselor."

One drawing shows two officers, one female, one male, in full riot gear, wielding batons and wearing vests and helmets. But the woman's face has a softness to it, and the man's eyes show a glimmer of sympathy behind the gear.

"It's an accurate picture," said Officer Paul Mainhart, a lanky man whose military bearing fits his job at the Herman L. Toulson Correctional Boot Camp.

"They're not showing a muscle-bound guy gritting his teeth," he said.

One inmate artist, Ronald Williams, recently found a fellow he had grown up with in East Baltimore, whom he had helped across the street and bought candy for at the corner store, guarding him at the prison. "He told me to call him 'Officer,' " Williams said, shaking his head at the turnabout.

The inmates played with that dynamic through their art, if only mildly. One version of a uniformed officer standing at ramrod attention bore Weisgal's face.

The artists were tapped for the project after some of them gave a present to Commissioner of Correction Richard A. Lanham Sr. It was a huge painting of the famous scene of George Washington crossing the Delaware, with the commissioner's face instead of Washington's and a bevy of wardens paddling the boat.

Genfi, who claims he was unfairly found guilty because his brother was in possession of drugs, now says he wants to "give thanks to the judge and jury who convicted me" for allowing him to discover his artistic talent in prison. A lifer working on the art project, Ricky McFadden, taught him to paint.

Genfi's personal work reflects the people and the pain of his native Ghana: a child of poverty whose luminous dark face is creased by a single tear.

Weisgal works on making images as realistic as photographs. Among his favorites are a little girl with huge brown eyes and a sketch of model Cindy Crawford.

Eventually, Leonard A. Sipes Jr., a spokesman for the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, hopes to take the correctional officer exhibit to Maryland's biggest prison communities -- places like Hagerstown, Cumberland and Salisbury, where the booming inmate population puts bread on many a family table.

When the pictures hang there, they will include one with no officers: a portrait of the inmate artists themselves. Weisgal's image wears a natty, striped three-piece suit he had seen in a magazine. Some of the other artists also sport jackets and ties -- communicating their visions, perhaps, of the future, when they hope to be known as artists or businessmen without the adjective "inmate" attached.

"When I go out there," said Genfi, "watch out for the next Picasso."

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