Madras gallery to showcase inmates’ work

‘Art Behind Bars’ takes prison art to new level

By Monicia Warner / The Bulletin

Published May 1, 2014 at 12:01AM

If you go

What: “Art Behind Bars @ DRCI”

Where: Art Adventure Gallery, 185 S.W. Fifth St., Madras

When: Opening reception, 5:30-7 tonight; artwork will be available for viewing and purchase during normal gallery hours, 11 a.m.-5 p.m., Monday-Friday

MADRAS — There’s a new artist and a new show featured each month at Art Adventure Gallery in Madras.

In April, it was Donald Stastny, Museum of Warm Springs architect. In June, it will be the Watercolor Society of Oregon. But for the entire month of May, the gallery will feature art and metal works created by inmates at the Deer Ridge Correctional Institution.

Jim Smith and Coralee Popp are the two masterminds behind the showing. Smith is a self-taught local artist and Popp is also an artist and the manager of Art Adventure Gallery. Popp has been corresponding with and viewing art pieces by two inmates from Deer Ridge since May 2013 and was contacted by Smith in early March to volunteer and teach art at the prison.

“We just introduced them to materials (but) they wanted to show us what they had been doing, so we were looking at their stuff,” Popp said.

About 80 inmates participated in the first art class, which led to a second class and a March Art Fair at Deer Ridge. The inmates set out nearly 200 pieces of artwork on tables for their fellow inmates and Smith and Popp to judge. The two artists then selected 34 pieces from 19 inmates to show in the May exhibition.

“When we told them about what we were gonna do, gosh, they just went nuts,” Smith said. “What we’d like to do is get the public to see and understand that these guys can and would be great artists.”

Popp and Smith said they didn’t know what to expect going in as volunteers at the prison, but both were pleasantly surprised.

“This is all done while they’re in their living quarters, … pods with maybe 20-30 guys in each pod,” Smith said. “As an artist, I understand when you are doing your art, you are in the zone. You don’t know what’s going on around you, and you don’t care. This is a way (for) them to escape where they are.”

Popp agreed. “I understand the healing power of art, it can do really amazing things,” she said. “You sit up there in the evenings in the dining area, and you (see) some guys playing guitar, some writing poetry. They’ve got some things in there they need to access, some good things.”

For Jeff Smith, an inmate at Deer Ridge, art is constructive, and something he really enjoys. Smith was winner of the people’s choice award at the March art fair for his pencil drawing of famous jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong. His will be one of the first pieces attendees see at the “Art Behind Bars” opening reception this evening.

“I only submitted that one piece,” Smith said. “There were really so many nice pieces up there. I’m grateful for it, but at the same time, (seeing) all that other art was really humbling to me.”

Smith and Steve Conn, another inmate and artist at Deer Ridge, said they use whatever they can find as utensils and mediums to create their work. Graphite, oil pastels, pencils, baby oil and Q-Tips are available for purchase and among the most common. There’s also a few inmate creations, such as paintbrushes created with hair and tape, shoe soles as erasers and blending stumps from old grocery bags.

“All us artists, we pay it forward to each other,” Conn said. “If we see each other at the same table come up with an idea, it’s like ‘Show me how you did that!’ If we see someone new just starting out, we’ll show them a technique or a shortcut.”

Prices for the works displayed at the gallery range from $30 to $1,300 and the money will go back to the individual inmates and to the metal shop to buy more materials.

Smith and Popp said they hope to start a regular art class at Deer Ridge. They have taught the inmates the basics of drawing, copyright laws and how to price and sign their art. They hope that eventually the men will be able to buy their equipment from a catalog and draw inspiration from within.

“I kinda went up there thinking that it was going to be tattoo art and convict type art, but it’s not; these are gifted people,” Smith said. “It’s a chance to straighten their lives out and come out with something.”

—Reporter: 541-633-2117, mwarner@bendbulletin.com