BUCKS HARBOR, Maine — The Machias Bay Area Chamber of Commerce normally features an artist every month whose works are exhibited in the organization’s offices on Main Street in Machias. But this month, there’s a twist.
The featured artists for January are inmates at the Downeast Correctional Facility, a minimum security prison in nearby Bucks Harbor. For about two years, the prison has offered a program in which one inmate provides art lessons to others. The instructor, Paul Jones, teaches groups of about four to five inmates at a time, meeting two afternoons a week, two hours at a time. The inmates may participate for three months, and then another group is rotated into the program. They take lessons and work on their art in a little room that inmates are also allowed to use for playing music.
While interacting with the prisoners, Sharon Mack, executive director of the Chamber, mentioned that the Chamber was going to have space in its offices for an art gallery. She subsequently was contacted by Rosa Tucker, who oversees the prison’s art program. Mack made a trip to the prison to see the inmates’ artwork and arranged for the exhibit.
“Prison art programs fill so many needs,” said Mack, speaking at the chamber offices last week. “They’re not something just to fill hours.”
Creative art allows inmates to “express what’s going on in their heart,” she said. It also shows they can have “value and purpose and possibly a career.”
Six inmates have their work on display at the Chamber, and some of them attended a reception there a week ago. The works are charcoal and pen-and-ink drawings, as well as oil, pastel and water color paintings. One inmate is exhibiting wood vases with paper flowers, and the men also made the frames for their art. Pieces are offered for sale from less than $50 to a few hundred dollars, and the inmates get to keep any money they make.The artwork will be on display through January, and other prison art will be exhibited again in August.
Ray Foster of Machiasport, a professional artist who sells art and antiques from a shop in Machias, has seen the inmates’ artwork.
“Some of it is extremely good,” he said last week, while adding some was mediocre. “All of them showed a lot of potential.”
Foster characterized the work of Jones as “very, very good.”
Jones, 35, who has been incarcerated since 2008, has been at the Bucks Harbor prison since May 2011 and is scheduled to be released in the fall of 2015. He declined to say why he was imprisoned.
He first began drawing when he was held in the Kennebec County Jail in 2008, but his efforts were primitive, he indicated.
“It was a rough start,” Jones recalled, speaking at the prison during an art session Thursday, noting he mainly drew “skulls and flowers.”
He participated in a similar art program — an inmate teaching other inmates for about one hour per week — when he was at Maine State Prison. Jones said he benefited most from the art books, other materials and working on his own.
His whole reason for trying art was to “deal with incarceration and keep my mind occupied.
“It’s very therapeutic,” he added.
Jones is taking an art correspondence course and hopes to earn a diploma.
Prison officials have been “very supportive” of the program, according to Jones, and it was a prison staff member who proposed the idea.
Jones was drawing in the prison library and showed his work to Carol Geel, a unit manager.
“Apparently she liked it,” he said. Jones lamented that the prison did not have an art program for inmates, and he recalled Geel’s response, “‘Would you be interested in teaching one?’”
Prison officials provided him with an art supply company catalog to put together a list of supplies that would be needed. The first supplies were purchased with an inmate benefit fund when the program was started two years ago.
Glen Kleinert, 35, who said he is doing time for theft and assault, sold two pieces of art at the Chamber exhibit. One was a picture of a blueberry rake with blueberries; while the other he drew from memory, a picture of a lighthouse in Rhode Island, where he grew up. The only prior art experience he had was making cards for his children at the Maine State Prison, he said.
“This program is great,” Kleinert said Thursday during the prison art session. “I’d never be this far along without it.
“It’s like meditation, but it’s got a result at the end,” he added. “It takes you away from the whole prison scenario.”
The inmates usually listen to music while they work, including “Monster Ballads,” compilation albums of popular power ballads with a heavy dose of glam metal, as well as Fleetwood Mac and Creed, a Christian group.
Mack is leading efforts to help the program further. The Chamber is raising donations of money and art supplies for the inmates, who have limited materials.
“My 5-year-old granddaughter has more art supplies than this group,” she said. The Chamber has collected more than $120 in donations plus about $200 worth of art supplies.
Mack also solicited local artists to donate time on Saturdays in the future to visit the prison and provide workshops for the inmates.
The inmates do a lot of community service in the area, Foster noted. Giving them a workshop would be a “good way for me” to give them something in return, he said.