I do not normally hawk artworks in reviews, but buying something from the current show at The Bridge would be a very good deed. The wares: drawings and paintings made by inmates in area prisons, who are also students in art classes that several McGuffey artists teach. Proceeds go to charity and future classes.
When one enters a show of this kind, the kneejerk tendency is to seek out the most skilled artists, the most polished products—as you would at a high school or county fair art exhibit. And, in fact, some are quite polished. Sonny Stinnie’s tiny pencil drawings, like “Three Sides,” are careful and meticulous: A man with a goatee and mustache is seen from the front and from both sides, three heads merging into one, like a mythic creature. Or perhaps this is an expression of multiple selves being hauled around in one body, ungainly and distinct.
My stare lady: Jessie Austen’s charcoal and colored pencil drawing, “Blue Eyes,” evokes a clash between intimacy and intrusion.
Some are not only polished, but truly startling. Thomas Caudle’s “Peeping Tom” is a cat on a ledge, looking less like a mischievous spy than a victim, trapped halfway up a brick wall, its image humming with alarm. Jessie Austen’s charcoal and colored pencil drawing, “Blue Eyes,” has a woman’s face and hands filling the frame. She’s gazing at you like a predator or a medical pro, poised to touch or probe or torture, her impassive stare a clash between the intimate and the intrusive. That only her face and eyes are given color heightens the effect.
Ultimately, though, this show is about process, not products. Almost two years ago, two C-VILLE colleagues and I visited one of the jail classes and talked with the inmates. Again and again, they described the classes as a calm oasis, a sorely needed time to concentrate.
Looking at these works, you can see thought, time and labor: enactments of expression and responsibility, color on a flat surface becoming a map or diagram of a person’s mind. There are demons and trouble in these minds —a cobra, a skull, political rumblings and wars, and many jail images—and also a lot of serenity: landscapes, flowers, soaring birds, fruit. It’s sobering to imagine a life including none of these simple pleasures, and thrilling to think how a person can use art to literally conjure them from nothing.