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National Prison Arts Project debuts at northern Ohio public defender’s office

Carol E. Briney, director of the Reentry Bridge Network in Canton, Ohio and Dennis Terez, Federal Public Defender for the Northern Dist. of Ohio, study a Pop Art acrylic piece by artist Radar Varner. Legal News Photo by Ashley C. Heeney

In solitary confinement Jimmy Corrin, Sr. used a pen, coffee and floor wax to draw, on a white handkerchief, singer-songwriter, producer and actress Erykah Badu. Legal News Photo by Ashley C. Heeney

Arthur Cleveland, an artist in prison represented by The Ohio Innocence Project painted his reaction to hitting a wall with the courts. Legal News Photo by Ashley C. Heeney

Ashley C. HEENEY
Legal News Reporter

Published: December 8, 2011

When Jimmy Corrin Sr., an Ohio prisoner for 30 years, was sentenced to solitary confinement, he would draw what he wished with the few materials he had.

A state-issued pen, black coffee and floor wax were his medium for creating a series of detailed drawings on white handkerchiefs. His subjects, as he’s titled them, are a centaur, an angry black man, a bass player and musicians Ray Charles, Bob Dylan and Erykah Badu, to name a few.

Alfred Cleveland, a prisoner with legal representation by The Ohio Innocence Project, hit a wall with the courts in his case and then painted himself crouched face down on the floor in front of four judges looking mulish in their black robes and white falls, towering over high stacks of legal briefs on which the words “HATE” and LIES” are shown.

Another prisoner, Radar Varner, well known for his 3D oil paintings, used pieces of toilet paper to create grapes for a grapevine, in one painting and in another created a painting of a bridge, using stones from the prison grounds.

That’s mushfake, as prisoners call making something out of less useful materials.

“It’s incredible what they come up with,” said Federal Public Defender Dennis Terez, Northern District of Ohio, whose offices in Akron, Cleveland and Toledo are hosting the National Prison Arts Project through 2012. About 300 pieces, done by prisoners on fabric, paper and canvas, are on display. The frames used in the show were made out of 2 x 4s that inmates cut and painted in Briney’s garage.

More than 30 of the pieces debuted at an open house in Akron Dec. 1.

The works are by students of Carol E. Briney, a former corporate business woman who “re-tooled” herself after 40 years and went back to school for degrees in art and psychology.

She is the founder and executive director of the Reentry Bridge Network, a non-profit in downtown Canton, Ohio, which since 2006 has been creating and running non-traditional reentry programs, events and community service projects inside Ohio prisons. The organization is staffed with 20 interns and volunteers, plus Briney, who for the past six years goes to Ohio’s prisons three days a week to teach art to inmates.

They’ve also come to her. Corrin did when he was released.

Briney said, adding with disappointment, that after a year of being free he died of a heroin overdose.

Corrin’s work, a long with Cleveland’s, Varner’s and many others are among the 30 to 40 pieces displayed in the public defender’s office in downtown Akron.

More art is displayed in the Toledo public defender’s office, debuting Dec. 8.

The Cleveland office will boast and even bigger show December 15, including the art of a man who was executed by the state.

The art displayed belongs to the inmates, Briney said. “Many don’t have anybody to send their art and want to show it.”

“I’ve seen an inmate price a picture at less than it costs the canvas to put it on,” Briney said. “I set prices that are affordable, real and consistent. There’s nothing less than $100. The average price $300. The highest price is $2,000.

Often the inmate will donate money from sale to RBN, but more often than not, it goes to their family.

To date, 600-700 pieces of art were shown in Canton in 2007. The following year, the Ohio Department of Corrections in London, Ohio hosted the First National Prison Art Show. Those selections provided the content for Prison Coffee Table Book Project, Vol 1 and Vol 2.

“Ultimately it will end up in a gallery in Columbus or Cleveland,” said Briney of the current show.

She’s currently making a national call for entries with a deadline of March 2012 for RBN’s Reflections Art Show, in conjunction with their National Prison Arts Project.

“I’m really focusing on Ohio because I can go to the prisoners, they trust me. The whole goal is for this art be shown so they can sell it and support for their family, and it encourages them not to spend their day idling.”

A number of the artists paint the grim realities of prison; many paint themes that have nothing to do with it.

“If you notice, most of them tend to be very hopeful,” Terez said.

“A large percentage reflects hope.”

Terez, who took the post of Federal Public Defender for the Northern District of Ohio in 2007, moved the Akron office from the lugubrious basement of the Federal Courthouse to a 7th story space in Akron Centre Plaza in April, insisting that the wall art represent the public defenders’ mission.

The museum quality display of the prisoners’ art achieves that, he said.

“Part of my objective was making it look as professional as possible – no person should think they’re getting second rate representation, just because they’re indigent,” he said. “We are hope for our clients in many hopeless situations,” he said.

The art should also send a message to the general public, he said.

“In our office, we represent a very talented group of individuals. While they might be in very uncomfortable situations, they are human beings too.

“Maybe they have pled guilty to things we don’t want in our community.”

Charges can range from heinous crimes like murder, but also sophisticated, white-collar crimes like financial fraud and Ponzi schemes, he said.

“In the criminal justice system, often we overlook the value they have. There are talented people found in prison. It’s a slice of our society. Our clients are artists, too.

“Shame on us,” he said. “Shame on us for being surprised at the quality of art.

“The national average is 95 percent of people come out.” Terez said. “If that’s so, when an ex felon enters the community, they have the talent to contribute.”