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« California, Religion and Art | Main | Writing a Book Redux »

June 21, 2003

Prisoner's Dilemma: Inmate Art


A story in the L.A. Times of June 21, “Inmate Artists Won’t Be Brushed Off,” discusses the effects of cutbacks caused by California’s state budget crisis on an inmate arts program at the maximum security state prison in Lancaster. The focus of the story (which you can read here) is on the effects of continued funding cuts—first the program lost its paid civilian teachers, and now may shut down entirely for lack of dough to pay for art supplies—but along the way it also provides an interesting glimpse into the mindset of artists under relatively unique circumstances.

Two inmate artists are discussed: Mitch Smiley and Cole Bienek. Both are in for second-degree murder; Mr. Bienek has been in prison for 15 years. Both are painters. Mr. Smiley focuses on figurative subjects, most recently on images derived from Orthodox Christian icons. Mr. Bienek is partial to landscape painting on the lines of the California Impressionists.

M. Smiley at work

Now these are only two men, not any kind of representative sample of the population, and I assume, perhaps incorrectly, that neither has a great deal of education. Nonetheless, they are both living out what would be for most of us a thought experiment: if locked up in prison, what kind of art would one choose to make? Mr. Bienek’s and Mr. Smiley’s choices are therefore intriguing to me. I notice that they are not spending time making abstract paintings or Duschampian ready-mades or conceptual art or any of the dominant modes of 20th century art. Mr. Bienek is trying to make representations of a nature he cannot currently experience and Mr. Smiley is trying to make representations of what, one assumes, is his form of ultimate reality. As Mr. Smiley explains:

When you're painting, you're not here...You're in your own world, you know?

I know very little about prison art; I wonder what choices other artists in this situation have made. Perhaps more to the point, what kind of art would you choose to make in this situation—and why?



posted by Friedrich at June 21, 2003


Dear Blowhards:

Since the only art we do at our shop is computer graphics, I'd probably be out of luck in prison. But the icon guy seems on the right track, simple graceful designs with latherings of numinosity.

In a related question, I wonder if other people who read, or saw the movie of, Bradbury's Farenheit 451 came away wondering what great work of literature they would take the responsibility of memorizing, chanting, and teaching to someone else. I remember deciding on Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, (in modern English, alas) as the seedbed of English narrative. If I could manage a second, it would be Trollope's Barchester Towers, humane, timeless, uproarously funny in places.

Art? Maybe I'd try to illustrate the Chaucer. Brilliantly illuminated initials, and all that.

L. Piccolapesce of Fishy Art Co

Posted by: L. Piccolapesce on June 21, 2003 09:43 PM

Slightly off-topic but what the hell ... I seem to remember that the Marquis de Sade never wrote except when he was in prison. Which I, shallow soul that I am, take to mean that his books are nothing more than expressions of a thwarted (and very perverse) aristocrat's fury at being kept away from his pleasures.

What would I paint if I were in prison, hmmm. And if I had talent, skill, persistence and discipline, of course, which is assuming a lot. Hmm. Don't know, really. Well, I just finished watching the movie "Frida," and I can say that one thing I wouldn't do is paint a lot of self-portraits.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on June 22, 2003 01:59 AM


Your comments on the M. de Sade are quite interesting; they suggest, for example, that despite their anonymity, that Mssrs. Smiley and Bienek possess greater inner resources than the famous Marquis.

Incidently, it didn't dawn on me at first, but it seems to me that there is a connection between this post and yours on California, Religion and Art. Perhaps two sides of the same coin?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on June 22, 2003 02:09 AM

By the way, I love L. Piccolapesce's description of the icons as "simple graceful designs with latherings of numinosity." Time to find this man a gig as an art critic.

And wondering about his Fahrenheit 451 question ... What book would I choose to preserve -- assuming, I guess, unlimited memorization powers. Tough one. Something that's full of useful, civilization-preserving information might do more of a service than a novel, no matter how great. Volume one of the encyclopedia, for instance. Or would my arty side take over? "Charterhouse of Parma," I guess, in that case. Or would I be lazy and memorize a slim volume of Philip Larkin's poetry?

FvB -- Our heads do seem to be in roughly the same spot these days. And not for the first time. Are we in a Larger Significance phase? Look out, world.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on June 22, 2003 02:38 AM

One thing I would most definitely not take with me to prison is the Canterbury Tales---or anything by Herman Melville. There's gotta be some upside to being in prison!! Jane Austen, the Brontes, quotes from Mark Twain, some Gloria Steinem, and a World Almanac.

Posted by: annette on June 22, 2003 09:21 AM

It doesn't surprise me about de Sade; Lenin and Hitler also did most of their writing in jail, which in many ways is the ideal environment: few distractions, and plenty of leisure.

Posted by: Aaron Haspel on June 22, 2003 10:07 PM

I was very interested in these comments as Mitch is my son; you may be interested to learn that while the State of Calif. called it 2d degree murder; it was more accurately a trial for "aiding and abetting by vicarious liability" which in layman's terms means he was at the scene of crime "prior" to when the crime occurred; and the crime was actually committed by someone else (who was convicted of the actual murder). In fact it is very interesting in this case Mitch did not know the victim nor his murderer. The victim was beating a smaller man senseless with a broken beer mug, the smaller man was bleeding profusely and Mitch intervened to pull the man being beaten out of the entaglement. Mitch was 6' and about 185 at the time. He succeeded and probably saved the life of the man. A third man stepped in who it turned out knew the man who started teh fight, and stabbed him ... he later died. So for that horrible crime, Mitch has served 25 years in prison because our past two governor's didn't want to parole anyone because of their political lives ... and their fear of "Willie Horton" type ads. In other words Cowards.

Mitch is a wonderful artist; self-taught mostly; has made several art videos teaching inmates the basics of drawing and applying paint, stretching canvas, etc. He is very gifted and intelligent.

He is my only child.
Jean Smiley

Posted by: Jean Smiley on December 16, 2003 10:31 PM

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