The Art of Atonement

Inmate's works of art are being used to help raise money for crime victims' families.

June 16, 2005|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,SUN STAFF

The young girl's gaze seems to teeter on the verge of emotion, like a summer afternoon that might suddenly erupt in thunder. It's a face that haunts artist Shane McCallum so much that he's already painted it five times.

"I think her appeal is based on the honesty of the innocent, or perhaps the neutral," he writes in his artist's statement. "The longer I look, the more I imagine. ... What will be her next expression? A smile? A grimace? Will she pardon or condemn?"

The 47-year-old artist writes, and paints, from his cell at the Maryland House of Correction in Jessup. His painting, These Eyes: The Matter of Factness of Being, a portrait of an unknown girl, has been awarded first place in an unusual art exhibition: the first Maryland Inmate Art Exhibit to Benefit Victims of Crime.

Tonight, when the show opens at Baltimore's Eubie Blake National Jazz Center and Cultural Institute, These Eyes will be auctioned to the highest bidder, as will three other award-winning works. Over the course of the next few months, the painting will travel across the state with 65 other works created by male and female inmates throughout the correctional system.

The other works in the show - done in watercolors, charcoal and acrylics - are also for sale. All proceeds will benefit the Maryland Crime Victims' Resource Center Inc.

"This exhibit allows the inmates to express themselves and their talents in a very positive way," says Mary Ann Saar, secretary of Public Safety and Correctional Services. "And because the show will benefit the Maryland Crime Victims' Resource Center, it's not only an opportunity for the victims to get that money but for the inmates to recognize that their crimes do have victims - and that they need to do everything within their power to make those folks whole."

In 1979, McCallum was given a life sentence for his role in the robbery and murder of John Perkins, a hairdresser living in Bolton Hill. He decided to submit several preliminary sketches to the show, he says, when he heard it would benefit crime victims. Two of his works were chosen.

McCallum says he's spent much of his nearly 27 years in prison reading every book he could about art and developing his skills. He takes most of his compositions from photographs in newspapers and magazines; These Eyes came from a picture someone gave him. Although he is drawn to such compositions as Inner Harbor cityscapes, he says he prefers to transform images of people.

This way, he says, he can study the human face without fearing his scrutiny will be misinterpreted.

"I've painted other inmates, but this is an environment where people don't like to be looked at," he says. "It's a sign of aggression to stare."

McCallum spends several hours a day tutoring other prisoners incarcerated at Jessup, helping them to read and to improve their basic math skills. He's also become accustomed to teaching the basics of drawing - an activity that can help inmates still feel part of the world they have lost.

"Creating artwork makes me feel like I'm still with everybody instead of being locked up in a cage, or a dungeon, or a hole in the ground," the artist says. "It's transcendental. ... It connects me to other people because we all have an emotional response to visual stimulus. The feelings I have about that picture are the same feelings other people might have."

And although McCallum is unsure if he will ever be paroled, he savors knowing that his paintings can travel into the community, representing him.

"I know they're out there somewhere. That's what I like about them," he says. "If I ever wind up getting out of here, I might bump into them one day."

Developed as part of a program to help rehabilitate prisoners, the traveling art exhibit cost $17,600. The Maryland State Arts Council contributed $8,205, while the remainder came from the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

The works were chosen by a panel consisting of judges from the correctional system as well as artists and art educators. None contain violent or sexual subject matter. One of the judges was Roberta Roper, former chairwoman of the board of directors of the Victims' Resource Center.

"The greatest appeal of doing this was to help create a new awareness in the public about the harm caused by crime - and to give inmates an opportunity to make restoration, even though it might not benefit the direct person they harmed," she says.

Roper helped start the victims' rights movement in the state after her daughter Stephanie, a senior at Frostburg State University, was murdered in 1982. That year she founded the Stephanie Roper Committee and Foundation, a victims' advocacy group and service organization that is now Maryland Crime Victims' Resource Center. The nonprofit center provides criminal justice information and education, counseling, and legal referrals and representation from its offices in Baltimore and Prince George's County.

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