Last Friday, I returned to the Maximum Security Correctional Facility in Riverhead. I was scheduled to do a portrait demonstration in front of all of the inmates. And so, I brought along an easel, some pencils, and a drawing pad. Before security allowed the easel to enter the facility, many phone calls had to be made. They inspected every inch of the equipment, to be sure that there is nothing that could be used as a weapon, etc.
Upon clearing the security, I was ushered into the main chapel. The room was filled with familiar faces, and some people I did not recognize. As I walked up to the front, many of the guys called out to me “Hey Kevin, we didn’t think you were coming back.” “What’s up man, you abandoning us?” I apologized for the delay in returning, as more than a month had passed, and assured them that a regular date was now locked into the calendar. A lot of the guys responded to that news with a smile.
“I don’t know if you guys have heard, but today, I’m gonna do a drawing demonstration, and do a portrait of one of you guys. Now, the purpose of all of this is for you guys to understand where these art classes will be able to take you. You know, there are kids that pay thirty thousand dollars a year to go to art school. There, they learn really lofty, artsy, intellectually brain spun principles of design, form, composition, two dimensional arrangement, minimalistic abstraction, post-Orphism expression, neo-deconstructivism, neo- post- partum- constructivabstractivisticismology. But, they are so busy being sophisticated, they never learn how to draw. You guys can learn to draw, with nothing more than a pencil. What do you guys do all day?”
“We hang out in a long hallway. That’s it. We just walk around, all aimless and shit. It’s boring as hell.”
“Can you set up a place to draw?”
“Shit, I’ll draw in my cell. I’ll draw all day long, man. Got twenty five years to draw. But better watch out- I’ll put you outta business when I get out.” Everyone laughed.
I passed out some of my pamphlets, with some printed material. On one of the pamphlets, there is a self portrait that I did when I had just returned back from Florence, the first time. The painting was, umm, uh, influenced by the classical idealism of the Florentine schools of painting, something I’ve stepped away from in recent years…
“Ahh haaaa, man, look at fuckin fabio, he did a paintin of himself. Ah, shit, aint you pretty Kevin. Actually, no, you wish you were this pretty!!!” Everybody laughed hard at the self (absorbed) portrait, and I laughed too. Then they passed around a postcard that I had printed with the painting of the woman and cello. “DAAAAAAAAMN, that bitch has got some hips on her. Wooooooooo…” “What were you thinking? No woman has hips like that, they are kind of off a bit, they are like, I don’t know, they’re….” “Why the hell do you have a woman and a cello next to each other?”
One guy held the card in his hand, and stood up in front of the rest of the group. “Shut up, dumb ass. You don’t know what you’re talkin about. It’s his artistic license. He’s talking about how beauty creates beauty. How the curves of the woman becomes the song of a musician, the side of her hips becomes a poem for the poet. It’s his way of reflecting a thing, you know. He’s taking poetic license, tryin to open your eyes.” I was speechless. He turned around and sat down, and didn’t look up at me. I was so impressed, I had to pause. Most people in the art gallery in Setauket, where it hung for a month, failed to see my painting with any of his insight. The same guy spoke up again. “You’re taking it back to the basics. Things got too cluttered, too far from the source. Same thing with rap. Everybody’s gettin techy, making it all computer generated shit. They’re makin rap about rap, instead of rap about life. The best rappers, they’re takin it back to the basics, just like you.”
“Well, today, I’m going to do this drawing for you, and I need somebody to volunteer.” Every last person shot their hand up in the air. The oldest guy in the group raised his hand as well. I called him up to the front, and he shook my hand and said “Hades.” As I set up the easel, I told him to sit comfortably in the chair. “Now, drawing is about seeing things simplicity. This whole movement of painting started when people wanted to make order out of chaos. The earth and the universe were strange and bizarre, and people wanted to make sense of it. So, they decided that there must be simplicity at the core of anything that’s complicated. And so, Hades’ face can be drawn with just five straight lines.” I drew five lines- the front of the nose, the front of the forehead, the bottom of the chin, the back of the head, and the front of the mouth. “Shit, Kevin, looks nothing like Hades.” Everyone laughed. “Now, I’ve got a rough outline of his head, so now I’m going to break those five lines up into more lines. And after that, more lines again. Pretty soon, I’ll have a likeness to Hades.” The room was dead silent. I worked for five minutes, talking all along about what I was doing at the moment. At five minutes, I asked Hades if he needed a break. He didn’t respond, he didn’t turn his head, he didn’t even budge. I suppose that was his way of saying that he didn’t need any breaks.
“Now, this is the zygomatic process, also called the cheekbone. See how the light is falling on it? Touch your face, and see how it is like the rim of a cup, surrounding the ball of the eye.” The guy closest to me yelled out “I broke some sucka’s ziggymatic when I bitch punched him. Put my hand behind his head, cracked him with my fist, and felt it crumble.” I turned up my eyebrows, and let out a very intentional and loud nervous laugh, and everyone in the room laughed really heard.
As the minutes went by, the face began to take shape on the canvas. I moved beyond merely recording details, and started to close in on Hade’s particular way of hunching his shoulders. I captured Hades’ squinting eyes, his locked jaw. As forty five minutes passed, I was amazed to see that he never moved once. Never laughed, never scratched his nose, nothing. Just stone cold, dead still.
As the time passed, everybody got up out of their seats, and came closer to watch. They surrounded the easel, and watched really close. “Looks like Hades. That’s awesome.” “He captured Hades, he got his anger.” “Man, he got Hades’ face. His wrinkles in his forehead.” “He got Hades’ sexy lips. Damn, Hades has got pretty little lips there, like cherries.” Hades finally broke his pose, and laughed hard at that joke. At about fifty minutes, a correctional officer announced that the prisoners had to go. Everybody came over and shook my hand. “You gotta come back. Do this man.”
As I walked out to the parking lot, Sergeant White walked with me. She was so excited about the demonstration. “You know, you proved a few things to the guys today. You came back. And, you proved that you could draw in front of them. That went over big.” As she spoke, I was just so impressed by how much she cared about these guys. I could tell that this was not simply a career for her- she really cares about seeing these guys change. “You know Kevin, it’s a vacuum in that jail. If they are idle, they fill that vacuum with violence, and they kill each other- literally. But, if you teach them to do something good…” She was very warm, and I could see that she was excited for the future. Being that the drawing was a likeness, I asked her if it would be okay for me to post the drawing on my website. She described how it was a potentially dangerous thing to publish any images of inmates- witness protection programs, gangs, family members being offended, etc. I told her that it was understandable, that I would not post Hades’ drawing.
I walked to my truck, and put my easel in the back. I drove five minutes away, to Main Street in Riverhead, to the Hampton Studio of Fine Art. Normally, I teach students here, but this day I was scheduled to work alongside another artist, with a model. The model came in, and I asked him to look out the window, to change the angle of his head, to raise his right arm… I pulled out a few sheets of my treasured paper, my Amatruda paper, handmade from a mill in northern Italy. I tacked up the sheets of paper to a board of scrap plywood that I found leaning against a wall. In a beautiful, sun drenched studio, in a run down building on a busy main street, I drew.