Transformation Behind Bars

Recently I had the opportunity to bring Pollinating Kindness to a state prison as part of our Community-based Art Prison Arts Collective. I arrived with a group of teaching artists and a guest artist. We had planned to share this participatory project with our regular Saturday classes but upon arriving learned that the yard where we normally teach was closed. Instead, we would visit another area of the prison known as the honor yard where the inmates have had the chance to create an art studio.

The studio is like an oasis of calm creativity in the prison. Accomplished oil paintings sit on handmade easels (designed by one of the men without any hardware). We saw sculptures made from an ingenious array of materials including tiny bits of paper folded into the shape of a glorious boat or a jewel-like box and figurative sculptures made from a compound of soap and sawdust. And we met men that supported one another in an 'each one teach one' model that harkened back to Renaissance apprenticeships. Everyone was introduced and we formed a circle around one of the tables.

We began by creating a list of acts of kindness for the butterflies. As I explained the idea of Pollinating Kindness, I realized that everyone in our varied group was an artist and teacher and, in some cases, a student also. As it turned out, this connection was not the only one we shared. Despite our different backgrounds and experiences, including, for some, the extreme experience of being in incarcerated for years, we shared many of the same ideas about what it means to be kind to one another.

Some in our visiting group had participated in the project in a gallery or on campus and shared stories of the acts of kindness they received on butterflies and completed. Initially, conscientious of the environment, I ltold the men that the acts of kindness they may identify inside would likely differ from what we encounter on the outside. As we talked, it was primarily the men in the prison that came up with ideas, perhaps due to our group's reticence to say something that didn't fit the environment or to our desire to give the men a chance to share. As it turned out, the acts of kindness that emerged from our discussion were remarkably similar to those on my original list, culled from friends, family, and my own reflections. Ideas from that day in the prison include: Talk to someone that you wouldn't normally talk to. Be mindful of other people's experiences. Remember that everyone is doing the best they can in that moment. Open people's eyes to something new. Make a meal for someone that is sick. Exercise patience. ​And, my personal favorite - Bring joy.

We began to fold butterflies. I let the men know that they would go back to our university and each butterfly they folded would represent an act of kindness on the 'outside'. Folding butterflies is not as easy as it looks and it took some of us a few tries, but working together and helping one another, we folded a big pile of butterflies. After a while, we shifted gears and moved into a discussion of the men's artwork. As we talked, one of the men thanked us for coming and said that he had to leave to go to work. We continued our reflection and, a little while later, he came back with a sheet of labels that he had made for the butterflies. The label stated: "Just when the caterpillar thought the world was ending, he turned into a butterfly....Have a wonderful day from the Progressive Art Program". We added this message to the butterflies, expanding the circle of reference and shedding new light on the context of a prison, a place of captivity with the potential to become a cocoon of transformation.

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