J: How do you work with cliché?

P: I speak about cliché. I don't have to sell them on not doing it. The people that I meet in prison are just as smart as anybody else. They may be uneducated, but they're extremely perceptive. They have to be in this environment.

So, when I talk about cliché—if someone draws a bird that's shaped like a "V"—then I'll say, "When did you start doing birds like that? Was it first grade or was it second grade?" "It was first grade." "Okay, then there's no need for you to do it anymore." I'll give them a photograph of birds in flight, and they can see all the myriad beautiful shapes that they could draw. I talk about cliché as a cheap shot. It's a cheap shot to make a gorgeous picture, and then all of a sudden the birds are little V's. I tell them that they need to come from a deeper place and try to make everything beautiful. That same sun up in the corner with its rays, that you've been making your whole life, how beautiful is that? How many times have all of us seen it? Who cares? Who wants to see it anymore? So I'm straight-on to a point where they kid me about it.

Also, there are some people who support themselves in prison by doing the popular thing, such as tattoo imagery, drawing the cartoons on handkerchiefs, or portraits. And they can barter for commissary and take care of themselves pretty well. They have something good going, and I don't think there's anything wrong with it. It's a peaceful way to survive in prison, and it's a fabulous way for people to relate to each other. But this class is not about that. The art class is about reaching for something new.

J: You've mentioned that some students' art has made it into gallery collections. What do people who have never been incarcerated get from seeing this art?

P: I think what they get at the deepest level is that we're all one. This idea of "us and them" is baloney. There aren't good people and bad people, but there are circumstances and all kinds of contingencies and influences. One man said, "There's nothing in this show that's contrived." I thought that was beautiful, because noncontrivance implies pure motivation. So I think people get the bottom line—"Whoa! These are human beings that we're locking away. These are actually real people who can speak eloquently and can make beautiful pictures and who deserve my attention."

J: What suggestions could you offer to people who don't have an art program available to them?

P: I would like to tell them that the point of making art is to spread goodness, and that it's much bigger than just making a picture. Creating a work of art is an act of generosity. It's something for people to give. It's not about getting something for themselves. With that approach to art-making, then people are more likely to find the energy and the continuous motivation to do it in spite of the circumstances


Phyllis Kornfeld is an artist and art teacher who sponsors Cellblock Visions (www.cellblockvisions.com), a collection of inmate artwork—as featured in this interview—part of an alternative art world flourishing today in American prisons.

Julie Broccoli is as a freelance radio producer and host.

From an interview that aired on The Fancy Broccoli Show (March 2, 2008) on the Vassar College radio station WVKR. Reprinted by permission of Phyllis Kornfeld and Julie Broccoli.