Inside Art - Professor of education creates opportunities  for reflection, expression for incarcerated women

Rachel Marie-Crane Williams had a semester break between earning a Master of Fine Arts degree in studio arts at Florida State University in Tallahassee, Fla., and beginning her art education doctoral studies. One of her professors mentioned a volunteer opportunity at a nearby prison and Williams ended up developing and teaching art classes to female prisoners.

The endeavor was intended to be temporary, but Williams ended up finding her calling. She was touched by the transformations that took place as incarcerated women spent their time on productive, nonviolent, creative pursuits. And the art programs benefited not just the women who participated, but the community as a whole and Williams herself, who built lasting relationships and learned how to become a more collaborative, responsive teacher with all types of students.

Now Williams, an associate professor of art education at The University of Iowa with a dual appointment in the College of Education and the School of Art and Art History in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, is known as an expert in the field of prison art. She’s working to bring even more arts programs to incarcerated women and children throughout the state of Iowa through a new cooperative arts network.

When you talk about teaching art in prisons, what do you mean? How do you define art?

The stuff I’ve done has mostly been painting, because that’s what I’m trained in, and because it’s low-tech and not particularly dangerous in terms of the equipment you have to bring in and out.

The other medium I’ve worked in is theatre. I’ve been a support person in that realm. I’ll write the program and facilitate it, but not actually teach. The other thing I’ve taught is a writing workshop, funded by Humanities Iowa, which was called Women on the Inside. We read about 20 books written by women about their lives, then my students wrote a series of sketches about their lives.

In prison, people make art any way they can. If they don’t have art supplies they’ll soak Skittles and M&Ms in water, and use that as watercolors, or they’ll use shampoo of different colors, or they’ll use the cheap make-up sold at the little commissary stand. That resourcefulness combined with the drive to make things is really amazing. It makes me not take for granted that people need to make art, they need to write poetry, they need to sing songs, they need to dance, they need to make images and objects.

How does art help women who are incarcerated?

One of the most important things we do is create a space within the prison environment where these women feel safe, and where they can let down their guard and rethink who they are. The identity they establish in the art room is really about making art, working with other people, and making something that other people can really enjoy and benefit from.

Many of the women I’ve worked with grew up in unstable homes, and had a really hard time in school. At first, many are afraid to take a class. They’ve had mostly negative interactions with teachers, so they’re very closed off. But when they experience success in the art room, they begin to build confidence as a learner, and they are more apt to pursue other educational opportunities.

How do prison art programs benefit the larger community?

More than 80 percent of people who go into prison get out again, so ask yourself: When this person comes back to my community, what do I want them to be like? You don’t want them to be bitter; you don’t want them to be less than human. You want them to have had some time to reflect on their offense and their life before prison and rethink how they want to live their life. The arts are one way to do that.

The other thing is, it changes the way the prison feels, and I think that’s very important. There’s a lot of evidence that having these types of outlets for people who are incarcerated really cuts down on violence. Everyone who works at a prison is from the community. If they go to work and are safe, that’s a big deal.

What challenges do you face when organizing these programs?

Often prisons and juvenile homes are very isolated or in rural settings far from the University, so you have to do a lot of driving to reach them. I like to get students involved and since so many students don’t have cars, getting there is probably the hardest thing. I’ve started to include the cost of transportation when I ask for funding. Finding money is always a challenge, but Iowa is filled with lots of very generous foundations, like the Roy J. Carver Foundation, and people and state agencies, like the Arts Council, so I’ve been very lucky to be supported in that way.

What have you learned from your work in prisons and juvenile homes?

It’s been a tremendous influence on my teaching. When I first went into the prison, I had my MFA, and I’d been teaching for a university, and I had my stack of art history books, and I planned to do very academic drawing exercises. The women just looked at me like, “Why are you here? We don’t really want to do this.” That was the first time I said, “Hey, I wonder what my students want to do, I wonder what they want to learn.” It really helped me to learn how to collaborate with students, to be responsive to what they want, and to be very flexible about how our journey together is going to progress.

What are you working on now?

I’m very excited. I’m working with the UI Women’s Resource and Action Center on starting a cooperative arts network. We’ll train community members and UI students to provide programs to alternative educational sites throughout the state, not only the prison and the juvenile home, but also youth shelters, homeless shelters, domestic violence shelters, those kinds of spaces.

Tell me about your art.

I like to paint and draw things about things, not just things that are self-referential.

Right now I’m working on comic books. I just finished a chapter on the Wilmington Race Riot of 1898, which is the only coup that every happened in the United States. It really marks the beginning of the Jim Crow era. The next one is a nice bookend to that, and it’s the Detroit Race Riots of 1943, which really mark the beginning of the civil rights movement in many ways.

I go to archives and get primary sources, historical documents, letters, and then I mix them with images based on historic photos as well as my own research about what cars looked like, what a particular area of town looked like, what people would have worn.

Why comic books?

I really love to read, and I also like to write, and I like to draw, and so it seemed like a perfect hybrid art form for me. The other thing is I can work small. I have two children, a husband, and a very busy life, and this allows me to make these little universes in a short amount of time.

It sounds like you have a very rewarding job.

I do. I’m very lucky. I get up every day and I think that I have the best job on earth.

Anne Kapler
with photo by Kirk Murray

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© The University of Iowa 2009