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Inside Out: Sketches from Inside

“If I am to have a message to the world out there, let it be: ’There are some of us, a good number of us, who strive to be better versions of ourselves, even from behind these walls. Don’t forget about us.”
—Robert Reid, Inside Out artist

Guests enjoy the artwork at the opening reception for “Inside Out.”

This spring, through a new collaboration between Penland and the Avery/Mitchell Correctional Institution, three Penland artists led a Prison Arts Pilot Program with a group of local inmates. Iron studio coordinator Daniel Beck, core fellow Sarah Rose Lejeune, and former resident artist Rachel Meginnes worked with fifteen incarcerated men over a period of nine weeks. “Our original intention was to solely focus on drawing exercises, as many of the men were most interested in learning skills and art terms that others are able to learn in school,” they explained. “Over the weeks, though, our drawing exercises turned into communal teaching opportunities in which all participants taught each other and we all learned to grow together as artists.”

The program culminated last month in an exhibition of artwork titled Inside Out: Sketches from Inside. The show, held at Fox & the Fig coffee shop in downtown Spruce Pine, was a collection of drawings from twelve artists who participated in the program. Their pieces included work in pencil, pen, pastels, and watercolor, with subjects varying from landscapes to detailed portraits of people and animals to works combining words and images. The common thread that connected them all was an astonishing level of talent and a real dedication to the practice and craft of drawing. As Daniel, Sarah Rose, and Rachel noted in their introduction for the show, “More than anything, the men at AMCI would like you to know that they have talent, heart, and soul and do not want to be forgotten.”

A viewer admiring some of the work, including portraits of a German shepherd and a parrot
Admiring the details on a portrait of a German shepherd

Although none of the artists could be at the opening, many had written statements about their practice that were on view as part of the show. Just like the drawings, these statements communicated a deep commitment and focus. “When our voices can’t reach the outside we still express our language of art as a reminder of our humanity, love, and our deepest feelings and expression,” wrote Nick Tucci-Caselli. “Art has completely changed my life, and with it came hope, purpose, goals, dreams, and a coping mechanism in times of stress, depression, and loneliness.” Another artist, Frederick Brason, wrote, “I hope to learn as much as I can from this class and all the incredibly talented inmates around me before I go home in three years and have a good foundation to build upon for the future. Through my art I hope to inspire others to explore their own creativity in whatever capacity it manifests.”

Alongside the statements from the artists there was a guestbook that viewers were encouraged to sign to share their thoughts and feedback with the artists. Reading through those pages revealed the power of the show and the impact of each artist’s talent. “I feel very privileged to have the opportunity to see your work and read your words—I see your hearts and souls throughout your creative expressions,” commented one guest. “Thank you for sharing this part of yourselves with us. We need your gifts more than ever and welcome them among us,” wrote another.

Angela Lamm of AMCI explains the impact these art classes had on the inmates she works with. She told one story about an inmate who had put in a request for a transfer but then cancelled it when he learned about the classes because he finally felt like his voice was being heard.

Inside Out: Sketches from the Inside will be on view at Fox & the Fig in Spruce Pine, NC through May 19. Visitors are encouraged to come and appreciate this special exhibition and to leave a message for the artists. Donations are also being collected to help support the continuation of the art program at Avery/Mitchell Correctional Institution; in the words of the teaching artists, the classes have been “successful beyond our greatest expectations.”

Thanks to teaching artists Daniel T. Beck, Sarah Rose Lejeune, and Rachel Meginnes; Penland’s Community Collaborations Manager Stacey Lane; Aaron Buchanan at Fox & the Fig; and Angela Lamm, Dawn McMahan, and Jason Penland at AMCI for organizing this program and show. And a big thanks to the artists who participated: Bobby Autry, David Baugess, Frederick Brason, Tyvon Gabriel, Eric Hughes, David Jones, Michael Lewis, Robert Reid, Juan Santiago, Michael Sheets, Antonio Trejo, and Nicolas Tucci-Caselli.