My name is Martin. I haven’t always looked at myself as an artist but I’m comfortable with the label now.
In 1971, when I was 17, I made a stupid decision that changed my life forever. At 18, I was sent to the Michigan Reformatory in Ionia, Michigan, where, with pen and ink I drew on envelopes and made greeting cards. It was an easy market because many prisoners have girlfriends, wives, or family they try and keep in touch with. I paid for cigarettes and coffee with my art then.
In the mid seventies I was transferred to the State Prison of Southern Michigan in Jackson, Michigan. I was assigned to work for the Michigan State Industries and my job was to draw and cut screens from standard specifications. These screens were used to make state flags and almost every sign you see on Michigan’s roads and highways. I also drew and cut screens to make decals used on state vehicles and one of my most important assignments was to design and cut a screen for the first license tags.
In 1990 I was sent to Lakeland Correctional Facility (LCF) in Coldwater, Michigan. My girlfriend, now my wife, asked me to draw her something other than a card. I wasn’t used to drawing large pieces but I sent her one with a snowy egret crossing a stream. Liking the emotions that surfaced from her compliments, I decided to do another one for her. I’m certain that’s what started me on my way towards being an artist.
The Branch County Salvation Army placed an advertisement in a newspaper that intrigued me. It asked for donations of art for a fund raising project. I submitted a proposal to the LCF Administration where, if they purchased the supplies, I would donate two pieces for this project on behalf of the prison. My incentive was that I would keep the materials left over. After going through proper channels, it was approved. The first was a bright red cardinal sitting high on a branch, overlooking a snow covered background – “View From The Top.” The second was a whale, disappearing as it dove majestically into the, water. I called it “Don’t Let Her Disappear,” a statement showing how our ignorance is killing off these beautiful beings.
During the four years I spent at LCF I taught myself enough about watercolor painting to get some commissions. I participated in a most unusual exhibition there also. Unusual because the public was allowed to come into the prison yard, mingle with prisoners, purchase any items that were for sale, and judge the exhibit! With the fears being injected into the public now I doubt those kinds of exhibits will happen again. My work received ribbons for First Place and Best in Show. It was a wonderful experience motivating me to produce more art.
The LCF in-house show led to another exhibit of prisoner art at a local gallery, the Tibbetts Opera House. About a dozen of my pieces were included. That was my first real public exhibit.
Since then, I have exhibited some of my work in Ann Arbor. This is, thankfully, due to the tremendous work that professors Buzz Alexander and Janie Paul do for artists in Michigan prisons. Buzz and Janie started, and have been curators of, the Prison Creative Arts Program (PCAP)http://www.lsa.umich.edu/english/pcap/ This is a program that, among other things, has made it possible for prisoners to exhibit and sell art at the University of Michigan for the past 11 years.
In 1994, I was sent to the Ionia Correctional Facility (ICF) where I began work as a tutor in the only formal art program in the Michigan prison system. A very talented artist, Mr. Herschell Turner, was the director.
Curious about his pastel work, a medium I’d never tried, I watched him for months. I couldn’t believe how easily he turned out colorful paintings with such dramatic contrasts. I eventually tried the medium but after getting colored dust all over the walls, floor, my face, clothes, and hair, I left them alone and quick! I watched him though and asked questions until I finally got the nerve to try again.
My first attempts produced dull, muddy pieces nowhere near the luxuriant and vibrant ones Mr. Turner produced. However, the pastel stayed where it was supposed to — not everywhere else. I started reading about pastels, watched, asked more questions, and now it’s one of my preferred mediums. I would have learned so much if I could have similarly watched some of my favorite artists, especially Diego Rivera and his wife Frida Kahlo, Frank Frazzetta, Boris Vallejo and Raymond Ching.
BIRTH OF THE PUDGIES
A friend encouraged me to develop a personal style when she told me that my work was very eclectic and I should consider painting a selection of pieces that weren’t so diverse. I thought about that awhile but didn’t quite get it. One day I was asked if I would donate some work to help with a fund raiser for victims of Hurricane Mitch. Deja-vu.
Thinking quantity and not necessarily quality, I worked furiously for a month to complete as many pieces as I could. The rudimentary beings that came out were so highly accepted by those who saw them, it encouraged me to paint more. This brought more positive comments and, of course, more primitive looking beings. They went by an assortment of names back them — earth people, mud people, even fat people — before my mother-in-law commented on how cute and pudgy they were. I liked that name, tried it, and that’s who they are now — Pudgies. Devoid of any racial, ethnic, national or religious identity, these universal figures convey basic human feelings common to us all.
Depending on the type of work, the process I’ve come to rely on usually goes like this. Spontaneous creations like Pudgy People and landscapes flow freely onto the painting surface. On more complicated pieces I make a detailed sketch. Images and ideas come from everywhere: a passage in a book, a conversation or a movie. A quick sketch is usually enough to get me started on a piece.
Once the sketch is on the painting surface I block in certain large areas of my background with patches of color. This is like a base or primer for the surface colors to sit on without appearing too flat. I usually paint the shadows in first before working on the main subjects. Highlights are always last.
Portraits are more uniquely detailed and complex. There are so many surface textures and details that if any one of them is wrong it will throw off the entire painting, especially the eyes or skin tone. Iusually start with the eyes because if they’re done right the rest is a piece of cake. I tried putting eyes in last and found that the closer I got to finishing a piece the more I worried that if the eyes came out wrong I’d have to do the piece all over again. That was way too stressful.
One of the biggest challenges in my environment is not being able to see objects that to you are normal. So if I’m working on a subject I’m not familiar with, I use references to get a better feel for the piece but I don’t believe references should be exactly copied, then signed and passed off as originals.
On portraits I rely on detailed photographs and discussions with whoever commissions the work. Success is determined by the attention paid to details. What is not there is just as important as what is there. The spirit and personality of the subject has to shine through, not just eye color or positioning of a torso. I don’t trace my subjects but because of the delicate intricacies and need for perfection in portraits I use the grid method artists have utilized for centuries.
My surroundings are very confining as can be seen in the painting entitled “My Studio.” For the last 12 years I’ve lived in a space 12 feet wide by 16 feet long. That doesn’t sound so bad at first. Now factor in six men living in this area, with six lockers, six desks, six trash cans, six chairs, six televisions, six radios, three typewriters, and six attitudes multiplied by six hundred, at times. Not a very good work-inducing space. Fortunately, for about eight hours a week and because of my job as a tutor, I have access to space in the art room. This helps a lot but, (ironically) except for home, where a real studio waits, a one-man cell would be much better. These cells, however, are now reserved for higher security prisoners.
As it is, even though I have very little room to paint, I have more than I need to create. A biggerchallenge in the prison is the hatred that breeds what may be a universal reality – destruction or mutilation of art — by prisoners and staff. Fortunately, this is an annoyance more than a serious or daily occurrence.
In spite of this obstacle, and thanks to tremendous encouragement and support of family and friends, I’ve finished over 300 pieces since the Salvation Army donations.
WHY DO I PAINT?
As therapeutic as art is, it’s also a legal way to escape from prison. For as long as it takes to paint whatever I’m working on, psychologically, spiritually and emotionally I am not locked up. To escape this reality some people choose homemade booze, drugs, sex or violence. I choose art.
Becoming an artist enabled me to connect with professionals and lay people whom I would not have dreamed of meeting. Not only am I blessed to have made so many sincere and caring friends as a result, but some of my work is now displayed in courtrooms, offices, hospitals and homes throughout the United States. Some of it is as far away as Mexico, Israel and Germany.
The main reason I paint is a lot more personal, however. I enjoy the feeling of individuality and self-worth generated by selling my art to prison staff and the general public. These sales not only allow me to purchase necessary supplies and donate to worthwhile causes, they also help me connect to the world in ways that give me an identity totally different from the one imposed by the state of Michigan — a number in a uniform.
For 35 years I have been separated from a world I never got to know as an adult, but in a very real way, art has given me a sense of belonging to that world. It helps me find a personal identify, an answer to that old question: “What do you want to be when you grow up.”