In The News

At the Hull-House Museum, artwork made while doing time

This story originally appeared in the Chicago Reader

The other day Damon Locks was at Stateville Correctional Center in suburban Crest Hill, where he teaches art to inmates, when one of the prison’s guards wandered into his classroom. Each of Locks’s 11 students at the all-male maximum-security facility had spent the semester making brief animations with pencils and tracing paper—among the few art supplies allowed in the jail—and the curious guard was trying to get a sneak peek.

Locks, a visual artist who also fronts the band the Eternals, treated the watchman to a collection of shorts that includes a critique of America’s cycle of incarceration, with a man behind bars dying off as a woman gives birth to a child destined for prison; an arcade homage featuring Pac-Man devouring both handcuffs and ghosts wearing graduation caps; and a first-person perspective piece in which a prisoner breaks his shackles and flies Superman-like to space before being imprisoned by aliens.

“He was into it!” Locks recalled last week of the guard’s reaction. “It broke down the barrier between guard and prisoner.”

The program, scored by Locks, will be shown as part of “Unfinished Business: The Right to Play” at the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum. “Who better to talk to us about freedom and time, we thought, than people to whom those topics are the most pressing things in their lives?” says Heather Radke, the exhibition’s coordinator.

The museum sponsored Locks as a teaching artist through the Prison + Neighborhood Art Project, which has been offering humanities classes at Stateville since 2012. But only last week did the Illinois Department of Corrections grant PNAP’s organizers permission to discuss their work.

Out of Stateville’s 1,600 inmates, 65 are enrolled in the 15-week spring semester. The men in Locks’s class alone have collectively been sentenced to 487 years; nine of his students are serving life sentences. “I’m not naive to the fact that some of the people we work with have done some pretty brutal things,” says PNAP founder Sarah Ross, an adjunct assistant professor at SAIC. “But to make sense of their lives, they need to create a way that they stay alive for themselves.”

After teaching at Danville Correctional Center for a few years, Ross began the program at Stateville, which lacked one despite its legacy of inmate art. Beginning in the 50s, work convicts produced in the jail’s painting class was exhibited and sold outside the prison walls. The late Margaret Taylor-Burroughs, cofounder of the DuSable Museum, was a longtime volunteer teacher of art, poetry, and writing at the facility.

A 1994 crime bill eliminated Pell Grants for federal and state penitentiaries, setting off the collapse of many higher-education programs behind bars. But PNAP has managed to sustain itself through grants from the Illinois Humanities Council and the Propeller Fund, and Northeastern Illinois University recently took on the program, recognizing studies suggesting education reduces recidivism and increases safety inside the slammer, among other benefits.

“I’m not in my cell when I’m drawing,” writes Stateville prisoner Patrick Betley, in a statement that precedes his animation. “My mind is free, like I’m in my own world.” Fellow inmate Joseph Dole writes, “Art . . .  allows me to pull the wool over my own eyes for a few hours and ignore the fact that I am not free.”

In June, to cap off PNAP’s semester, Locks is organizing an Eternals performance inside Stateville for the graduates. “We’ve been digging into their psyches,” Locks says, “so I’m glad I get to finally open myself up to them.”