As a long-time volunteer chaplain at a maximum security prison, I was early on amazed by the remarkable artwork created by inmates. Many of these men, as boys, failed in school, joined gangs, carried powerful handguns, used and sold drugs, stole, and waged violent war against one another. These same boys, years later, have ended up in prison where they are viewed by the larger culture as refuse. No one, least of all themselves, would have dreamed that one day they might pick up a paint brush or pen a poem.
But there they are, standing in front of their wares outside the arena of the Angola Prison Rodeo, selling their paintings and leatherwork, homemade jewelry and wooden lawn chairs to members of the general public who’ve come looking for a bargain. As I walk slowly up and down the aisles and talk with the artists, I’m less impressed with the quality I see than with the astounding fact that they’re doing this at all. They love to talk technique –brush strokes or exotic methods of tooling leather. Most learned their craft from other inmates who, in turn, learned from older inmates before them. Others, on arriving at prison, picked up an instrument for the first time, became proficient and joined a band. Yet others discovered they could write –there is a Drama Club that produces original plays.
Certainly, there is a monetary motivation for some of them. In a penal system that pays only pennies a day for hard labor in the field, these inmates can and do sell their crafts for the only “real money” they earn. But one gets the sense most would be doing this anyway –just for something they never knew before they were locked up — the joy of creating.
I’ve played music pretty much all my life. I learned in a musical family the same way some learn a second language in a bilingual household. I also write poetry and stories, love to dance and draw. I can’t imagine a life without the joy of creating. Though I’ve published poems and stories and played professional music, it truly isn’t about recognition or money. It’s about making something that wasn’t there before you made it. It’s about sitting on the front porch on a Saturday afternoon and sharing with someone else what you’ve made.
From time to time, someone will ask me, “do you think it’s too late for me to learn the piano or guitar?” I rock back and forth on my front porch swing and strum a chord or two. I think about my friends at Angola, and I tell them no, it’s never too late.
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