Stockbridge art teacher shows how prisoners paint in confinement


STOCKBRIDGE -- Phyllis Kornfeld's art students may be locked up, but their thoughts, emotions and ideas move freely.

For the past 30 years, Kornfeld, now a resident of Stockbridge, has served as an art educator in prison facilities from Oklahoma to Massachusetts.

On Friday, she'll share the work and stories of the people she works with during an evening lecture, "Cellblock Visions: Prison Art in America," at the Stockbridge Library.

It's a career move she never planned and now, at age 74, it's one that she doesn't intend on giving up any time soon.

"It's been a gift of my life, and I'll still do it, even if they have to wheel me in," said Kornfeld, who is still quite able-bodied.

After raising her two daughters and working in a variety of arts education and project settings, she began working in Oklahoma state prisons in 1983 through a residency program.

Though she's been immersed in the field of art since the first-grade, as a painter particularly, Kornfeld said she hasn't done any serious works of her own since 1988.

"I keep developing my skills as a teacher. I have no interest in painting," she said, though on occasion she will make an exception to make art for a prisoner, just so her students know she's legit.

"I want to show the human," she said, thinking over her work in cell blocks. "These [prisoners] are human beings with potential for good and evil, same as the rest of us. It's as possible to elicit good behavior as it is bad behavior. I want to make sure goodness goes out," Kornfeld said, emphasizing that most of her students will eventually be released from prison back into a community.

Kornfeld said she works with incarcerated people from the perspective and objective of an artist working with an artist, and not with a sense of judgment of what her students may or may not have done to land in jail.

"I worked through the issue of criminality very early on," she said.

Kornfeld said she has had access to her students' criminal records and files, but she says "it's irrelevant."

She has worked with men and women both in minimum and maximum security facilities.

What people have done in their past, she said, "It's not within the realm of art class. I don't know what people have done unless they tell me inadvertently."

On her website (, Kornfeld describes three sub-genres of art she's seen people in prison create: folk arts, outsider art and jail art.

In folk arts -- defined by something handed down, specific to a culture and crafted from materials indigenous to the place from which they spring -- inmates have produced paper weavings (from food wrappers and cigarette packaging), soap carvings (made with plastic utensils, paper clips, fingernails, etc.), toilet paper sculpture, handkerchief and envelope art.

Outsider art she defines on her website: "In prison, the outsider artists are creating work with pure motivation -- art for its own sake -- without even a nod to the prevailing popular art that their fellow prisoners admire and pay for."

She also described it as self-taught, un-taught, visionary, art brut or naïve art, which is often sought after by patrons, galleries and museums.

Jail art is the kind of art that "is recognizably born in the penitentiary" and is "most admired, in demand, and commercially successful within the walls," she said.

This sub-genre includes tattoo and biker art, fantasy art, and art about being in jail.

What happens with the artwork varies. Some easily transported work, like handkerchief art, single-sheet pieces and envelope art often gets sent home to loved ones. Often, prisoners have children they send their work to.

Other works get bartered or sold among fellow inmates, or traded for commissary. Other pieces barely last 24 hours.

"I once had someone make a castle out of Cheetos held together with toothpaste. It was confiscated and destroyed in a day," Kornfeld said.

Though she said she doesn't keep thorough track of the inmates she's worked with, she says she knows of a few who go on to be commercially successful artists. But for most, the artwork produced in jail only makes its way into public view through shows and exhibitions and charitable events coordinated by artists like Kornfeld.

For example, some prisoners have donated their art to raise funds for local food pantries. Others donate their art through the Inside/Outside Envelope Project, which benefits the Reading Excellence and Discovery (READ) Foundation, a one-on-one tutoring program that partners teens with at-risk kindergarten students and first-graders.

Though she's encountered a number of critics of prison arts programs over the years, Kornfeld's turned a deaf ear to them.

"I see [prisoners'] capacity for doing so much and their lives are often wasted while they're in jail. They need this opportunity a lot more than any other audience I can think of," she said.

"Prisoners were and are still charismatic people as a whole. They produce real, authentic work that has a lot of energy," Kornfeld said. "Thirty years later I'm still seeing art that's fresh and new."

If you go ...

What: Phyllis Kornfeld, author of ‘Cellblock Visions: Prison Art in America,' presents a slide talk on the art of prisoners

Where: Stockbridge Library, 46 Main St. Stockbridge

When: Friday at 6 p.m.

Admission: Free

Information: (413) 298-5501


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