Painting prisoners healing through art

While Md. agencies get murals, inmates build their creativity, hope

February 06, 2000|By Jonathan Bor | Jonathan Bor,SUN STAFF

When Lawrence Weisgal was sentenced to 12 years in prison for armed robbery, he vowed to do everything he could to stay away from the drugs and violence that polluted prison life. It was no empty promise.

But Weisgal, locked up in the Maryland Correctional Institute in Jessup, needed a way to put his energies to productive use. Luckily, the prison had just started to employ a select group of inmates to produce murals, signs and illustrations for public agencies.

Surprising himself and others around him, Weisgal picked up some charcoal and began turning out dazzling renditions of scenes he saw in magazines. He not only discovered a way to stay out of trouble, but got his start on the career that paid the bills when he was paroled after six years in 1996.

Yesterday, Weisgal was the featured artist at the Douglas Memorial Community Church in West Baltimore, which was host of a reception for its exhibit of inmate art called "Freedom Within." Aside from Weisgal's charcoals and his playful metal sculptures, the exhibit consists of paintings produced by other inmates for Maryland's official state calendar.

On display are depictions of Maryland symbols -- a lighthouse, the state flag, wild ponies at Assateague, sailboats by the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. Weisgal's works were the only ones that departed from that theme. Charcoal drawings bound in a loose-leaf portfolio include a near-photographic likeness of Woody Allen and a scene of two boys peeking through the knotholes of a wooden fence.

"This is all I did," said Weisgal, 48, who went daily to a room where he was allowed to produce his work. "I stayed to myself, and it gave me an outlet. It was the greatest thing that ever happened to me."

The inmate art program began at Jessup in 1991 but soon spread to other prisons. Public Safety Secretary Stuart O. Simms said the art supplies are purchased with money from prison commissaries. About 100 prisoners take part and are paid a dollar a day.

Some of their paintings brighten up reception areas at the prison; others are used as backdrops in schools.

This is the sixth exhibit in three years at the Douglas Memorial Community Church, at Madison and Lafayette avenues. The senior pastor, the Rev. Brad Braxton, said the prisoners "are allowing artistic genius to vent, and by that they are expressing some freedom even though they are confined."

Weisgal is certainly an exceptional case of someone who went on to earn a living as an artist, but many share the same thrill -- and amusement -- of seeing their posters on display when they show up for appointments at parole offices.

Weisgal credits his art with helping him to kick a 26-year drug habit, to get married and to buy a house. Through his business, Wonder Wyndworks, he sells sculptures that include railroad cars, dragonflies and birds -- all made from the material he respectfully calls "junk."

"There's nothing more exciting than a pile of junk by the side of the road," he said. "I swore to myself that I'd never do anything that made me unhappy ever again."

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