Life and art in jail


Hands, prison barsI am just beginning to realise how heavy is the custodian's responsibility. This is what comes of being nice to people.

One of my students, Mr N (N for 'not his real name'), has entrusted to me half a dozen sizeable paintings for safe-keeping. Why he has done this is not entirely clear. Perhaps he sees them as payment in kind for services rendered. Not that I have rendered any services, apart from listening to him read, and trying in an ad hoc fashion to correct his pronunciation in the pursuit of better English.

Mr N is a Korean national. He has been in jail for a long time. That is our context. I teach. He learns.

Each morning, before the inmates are released from the yards he strips down and exercises, rain, hail, or snow. Then he meditates. I have seen him sitting in sleet, shirt off, legs crossed in the lotus position, or else in full splits, sago snow in his hair.

'Aren't you cold?' I asked him once.

'Yes. Very cold. But after warm all day.'

Mr N is 65 years old. He is a fine painter and potter in the classical Korean style. My colleague, the ceramics teacher, has told me that Mr N has, intuitively and independently of current theory, arrived at a place that is concomitant with the cutting edge of contemporary ceramic arts practice. I take this to mean he is a good potter, and indeed the pots he makes seem mighty fine to me. Likewise the paintings.

Mr N's English is poor, but his wit is sharp. The idea of art seemed to be a way to stimulate discussion and begin tackling his otherwise general lack of English. In jail is art enough to make life worthwhile?

'Art making beautiful every day,' he says.

The other teachers have had no luck with him and have passed him on to me. They report a level of arrogance.

'He has issues with women,' they say. This may be true, given his age and cultural background, but I have not detected it. Another thing they have against him is that Mr N has, in the past, accused them of stealing his paintings. They have issues with vexatious allegations. Their frustration may well stem from the fact that he does his own thing and is not interested in what they tell him.

I see Mr N once a week. As part of our lessons I bring in art books and he reads from them. Picasso and Matisse are his favourites. When he turns a page and meets an image he likes he lets out a low growl of appreciation: 'Shiiiiiiit,' followed by some declarative statement: 'This I learning need.'

He quickly makes a sketch of the painting in a handful of economical lines, then a fortnight later I will find this drawing translated, in pretty fair likeness, onto the face of a pot, just fired from the kiln. His vases look as though a cubist made them, albeit a cubist grown up with a Korean sensibility. I am surprised to hear myself explaining cubism to him, or that other guy with the crazy moustache.

As an exercise I offered him a short quote: 'If you could print eight words on a T-shirt to sum up your view of life what would they be?'

This took some explaining.

'T-shirt I understanding, but view of life? — what meaning?'

'It means how you see the world.'

After some consideration, and the help of a bilingual dictionary, he pronounced how he saw the world.

'Fuck off.'

I said: 'That's only two words.'

'Then — fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck off.'

Twice he won first prize in a national art competition. The art works were not returned. It took a long time and a lot of bureaucratic rigmarole and paper work for the prize money to filter through, minus a hefty commission. To thank his teachers Mr N bought chocolate for all the staff, however it was decreed that this was trafficking, and so after several days deliberation the chocolate was gathered up and returned to him.

Mr N killed his wife and step-daughter with a fruit knife. Just in case you were starting to feel sorry for him. The details are beside the point here (leave your inner lawyer at the door), suffice it to say without making light of it, he must have had a very non-Zen moment.

I have to always keep this in mind when he wants to discuss aesthetics, or Matisse's brush technique, or surrealism. One can't be too complacent. In different circumstances would I invite him home for dinner? Would I want to discuss the paintings on my walls?

I have his paintings and I don't know what to do with them. Mr N's concern is that once he moves on to another jail the paintings will simply be tossed out. He could not take them with him. Fine as they are I do not really want to hang the paintings on my walls. Yet I cannot bring myself to throw them away.

Even if I thought they were awful would I throw them away? My reasons might be purely selfish. If ever he accuses me of stealing them I can say, no, here they are rolled up in a cupboard.

So now I am the unwilling custodian of some very fine paintings that no one will ever see. I have placed them in a locker hidden away in a room in a wing of a building that I rarely visit. Mr N has moved on. My responsibility is getting lighter. Eventually he will be extradited to a country where he will not be remembered. In a way I feel sorry for him, but that is barely allowed. Who else would waste 1000 words on him? He sends me Christmas cards.

Oliver Humphries has published articles in a range of journals. He has also published two novels and three collections of poetry. 

Topic tags: oliver humphries, prison, jail, mr n, picasso, matisse, pottery



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Existing comments

The beauty of life is that if we allow it we embrace paradoxical situations which force us to reconsider our values
What you see is not always what you get with individuals who come into your orbit for a time

My experience is that these are the people who allow us to grow. they are priceless
GAJ | 01 October 2010

... keep you day job! : )
Ian James | 01 October 2010

A Catholic publication should never include such profanities as has been written here, no matter what the context is.

As Jesus says, it is not what goes into your mouth, but what comes out of it that you will be judged.

There is no excuse for any Catholic publication to reproduce such vulgarities.

It is reprehensible when secular newspaper,books, movies and public conversation are full of swear words.

I, like my family and Catholic friends hate this sort of speech. It is highly ofensive to us and to many.

I would ask the editors of Eureka Street to stop all such language in their articles. It is not "clever" or " with the times" to use foul language.

It is instead an indicator of a person who has no respect for others, and (mainly) it is a grave Sin against God's Law and very offensive to the Blessed Trinity.

Eureka Street, clean up your act and be like a beacon of light towards other publications.

Trent | 01 October 2010

A brilliant and moving meditation. Thank you, Oliver. And, even taking into account Oliver's reservations, thank you Mr N.
David B | 01 October 2010

I too am a Catholic and I believe that it is important to first practise tolerance and not attempt to impose our views on others. Yes disagree by all means but not impose intolerance.

The words used may appear to be offensive to some but let's look at the intent. Isn't this paramount ?

Vernon | 01 October 2010

A brilliant and moving meditation. Thank you, Oliver. And, even taking into account Oliver's reservations, thank you Mr N.
David B | 01 October 2010

very insightful piece of writing...offering the big questions and no big answers. I like that. And as to the 'swear words' - I think you may be missing the point altogether.
Denise | 01 October 2010

Hey Trent, how do your comments help anybody but yourself ?
Ray O'Donoghue | 01 October 2010

I found this a profoundly moving piece. Observant, experiential and offering no answers to a life, our lives that are complex and inconsistent while at the same time holding moments of beauty and transcendence. Thanks
spiritedcrone | 02 October 2010

i think you should put them up on the walls in the art room for everyone to see.
just because he is a murderer does not mean that he is unable to demonstrate a level of redemption.

you have a responsibility with your teachings to teach, well do just that, teach about what you learned from him.
rhonda | 02 October 2010

I work with many Mr Ns, and have done so for many years. My role model was the assistant warden, a remarkable woman. Her attitude to those with whom she worked, until mandated retirement at 75 was, 'There, but for the grace of God, go I'. Dr Ruth W led the way, modelling respect for each one, residents,(inmates), and staff.
Each day as I work facilitating art expression in many forms, my attitude is that I meet each person on this day and we go from there. I am uninterested in what has brought them to the prison. Experiencing today and what we make of this day seems to work best for me.

I see so many wonderful creative exprsssions, in so many different art forms. Many men are able to send beautiful things home. Some have no one to send their work to. No one. Mr O has no one, but he is very happily making a wooly hat on a knitting loom. That will go into our collection of things for homeless people in this area. (Winter is coming and it will be very cold.)

Jesus said that whoever is without sin may caste the first stone. Maybe 'stones' are also harsh judgements, and cruel words.
The work of each person is valuable as an expression of his creative spirit. Many pieces are displayed in the srt room, always with the consent of the person. Some are too personal and not for public display.

Some people are able to find a certain release in their art work and some are able to develop skills previously unrecognised. This is life affirming.
eleanor | 05 October 2010


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