Sunday, October 5, 2008

At the Jail

When Rose and I started teaching art classes at the jail, one of our first students was a guy called Mr. Parler.  His name was pronounced "Par-ler" (like sun parlor) but after a few classes as he got more excited about what he was doing, he announced that, since he was now an artist, he was going to call himself "Parlé".  He had us laughing a lot of the time in class, and once, when we were talking to them about the idea of using the skills they already had to teach each other, he exclaimed, "I could teach gun safety!"

At the end of one class, we were asking them how the art might affect their lives, especially the ones going back out on the street.  "You know, you might really be able to influence people with your art," we said.

"Yeah," said Mr. Parlé, "Instead of a gun, I'm going to be carrying a paintbrush!"

Rose and I teach in the same classroom and we each have a set of students that switch halfway through the fourteen-week classes.  In the jail, Rose started out teaching painting on ceramics and I taught drawing.  When we took the art classes to the prisons, Rose began teaching painting in acrylics, and I started teaching both drawing and watercolor.  The inmates—many of whom had never done any kind of art before—jump right into whatever we offer, producing a lot of intriguing work.  

In Rose's class at the jail, Mr. Parlé painted a ceramic piece about black history with slavery and civil rights (and lynchings) all surrounding a black fist.  It was a powerful piece that made the programs director nervous since we exhibit the work publicly.  When it got fired, tragically, it developed a huge crack right down the middle. Rose and I were heartbroken. Mr. Parlé asked "Is that guy who does your firing white? I knew it!" 

When we had an exhibition of their artwork, the superintendent of the jail bought a drawing by Mr. Parlé.  Mr. Parlé got excited when we told him and as we were being escorted out from class one evening, he told the C.O. (guard), "You gotta be nice to me now.  Me and the superintendent are like this!" and he crossed his fingers.

There was also a guy in our first class named Thomas who was pretty laid back and sang a lot to himself while he drew.  A big guy, he would sometimes wear his hairnet from the kitchen to class.  One day the guys were all talking about fights and people going crazy and acting out.

"The most dangerous man in a fight is a scared man," said Thomas.  And they all nodded like it was prison conventional wisdom.

One inmate, Shawn, was asking him about a situation that Thomas had apparently stepped back from.  He had decided it wasn't worth it to challenge the other guy.

"Why didn't you go after him?  You're bigger than he is. You coulda had him," said Shawn.

"Yeah, but that ain't my way," said Thomas.

"Shoot, every time some guy gets on me, I'm right back on top of him. That's how I operate."

"So, how well has that strategy worked for you?" I couldn't help asking Shawn.

"Got me in prison more years than out," Shawn promptly replied.

One class we had was pretty lively, with Mr. Z who spoke four languages (they called him "the interpreter"). His family was Italian from Sicily, which got our imagination going, and he thoroughly disapproved of snitches.  There was also Scott who liked to hassle the jail officials by writing long carefully crafted "kites" asking about the thread count in the prison sheets and commenting on the nutritional value of the food.  And there was Eric who was a big quiet man who just wanted be out and with his family.  Mr. Z said the hardest thing about being inside was not seeing his son grow up.  Eric agreed--his kids were in college.  Scott said the hardest thing for him was the passing of time: "You get out and the world has moved on without you."

When I asked them what was the thing they missed most while in jail, one of them said, "Standing outside in the rain."

It was during the months I was teaching that particular class that I met George Clooney at a restaurant in North Carolina, so I told the guys about it.  Mr. Z topped my story with one about meeting Angelina Jolie.

"She was at T.J. Max and I ran up to her and hugged her and told her she was my favorite actress."  He also got her to sign a family photo.  

"Isn't that your wife?" asked Angelina.

"Oh, she's just the mother of my daughter.  Anyway, she doesn't care; she likes Brad Pitt."  This happened a number of years ago, before Brad and Angelina got together.

"Maybe you gave her the idea," I said.

"Yeah," said Mr. Z. "Damn!"