Rose Hill and Lindsay Michie Eades move plastic tables and chairs into position in a fluorescent lit, cinderblock room deep inside the Albemarle Charlottesville Regional Jail. Outside, past numerous green metal doors heavy enough to excise a finger, down labyrinthine halls that split randomly, comes the sound of voices and laughter, and the jingle of large, cartoonish keys. The door opens and 10 women file in, all dressed in matching red pants and shirts. They sit, five to a table, pick up pencils and paintbrushes, and begin to work.
Ramona J. Etheridge had never drawn before she began a class at the jail.
Hill has been teaching art to inmates here since the program began in the summer of 2005. Her first class was with 12 women, and she was nervous, not because these students were in jail, but because she didn’t consider herself a teacher. Six months later Eades joined her, and the two began to teach together, men’s classes as well as women’s. There have been no moments of danger; no fights, no outbursts, nothing to fear. The teachers, both artists at McGuffey Art Center, say that teaching at the jail is the best and most meaningful thing they have ever done.
At Eades’ table the faces are serious and intent, eyes rebounding between the paper and the face that is their subject.
“What was she saying about robbing someone?”
“She BP, bi-polar.”
The women have spent the entire day in Narcotics Anonymous meetings and drug rehab classes, from 6am to 6:30pm, and they are tired. Two times a week they can go outside, except it’s not really outside, it’s more like a cage with an open roof, without benches or grass.
“She was on that other stuff, Seroquel…something to make her more psychotic than she already is.”
“In my opinion that’s a cop-out. You get off drugs and just start taking medication.”
Instructor Rose Hill helps Sabrina Meeks.
Over where Hill is teaching ceramics, an inmate named Dianah peeks at the vase that Marie is working on and accuses the woman, her older sister, of copying her. Dianah, who is in her late 30s, is relaxed and goofy, teasing her sister as Marie paints flowers that are delicate and exact, glowing against an azure background. The inmates were brought to class later than usual tonight, which made Dianah nervous. The art class is a huge stress reliever for her. Without it—well you don’t want to know. It is a comfort to have a relative in jail with you, but Dianah will be getting out soon, leaving her sister behind.
Cynthia sits quietly as she works, the only one not breaking concentration to talk or laugh. With her half glasses, and round calm face, she could easily be taken for a kindergarten teacher. Softly, she tells me that this is her first time in jail. It is hard being away from her family. Three weeks ago she couldn’t even draw an apple, but now she feels she has improved immensely. Offered a choice between jail and losing her children, she chose jail. Art class, she says, helps her focus on something positive.
The inmates cannot keep any of the art that they make in class—this though some of it is very personal. What they produce is sold at shows like the one currently on view at McGuffey, and the proceeds get split between supplies for the class and local causes. The art classes are extremely popular. There’s a long waiting list and many students take them more than once. So far, jail administrators say, the recidivism rate for inmates who take classes like this one is lower than normal. The hope is that when the students get out of jail they will remember how they once made something beautiful and will begin to change their lives for the better.
Tina Lopez-Galeano learns the art of applying color in ceramics.
Ramona is trying to draw Cynthia, but isn’t quite getting it. The hair is right, the glasses good, but below that…nothing. “Mrs. Eades,” she calls out, “come help me with this.” In and out of the jail repeatedly, she is currently serving time for contributing to the delinquency of a minor—she was getting high while pregnant. Several times she protests that she can’t draw. But when the class ends and the inmates are getting ready to leave, I spot one of Ramona’s drawings on the floor, and her signature, Ramona J. Etheridge ’07, is written in beautiful, perfect, swirling cursive, almost as big as the drawing itself, stretching proudly across the entire page.