ELLSWORTH — Teaching art in jail isn’t like teaching art in school: pencils and erasers are zipped into plastic bags and collected after activities. The door is locked from the outside and students, dressed alike in navy jumpsuits, are patted down after class.
There’s also the issue of attendance: some students are awaiting sentencing, unsure of whether they’ll be there next week, or in two weeks or a month, to finish a project.
“The jail is very supportive,” says Phil Wormuth, an English teacher and author who teaches writing to inmates through the newly introduced “Art, Write, Now!” program at the Hancock County Jail.
The program began last summer, after Regional School Unit 24’s Adult Education Program Director Ander Thebaud won the support of bail jail administrators and Hancock County Commissioners to develop a plan for expanded programming at the jail.
“We said let’s just run with it and see what happens,” said Wormuth.
Classes are held on Friday afternoons in the jail’s library — one of the largest of any of the county jails — a small room with light blue cement walls, overflowing bookshelves, four computers and an old printer. By the time a plastic folding table and three chairs are set up, there’s little room to move around.
Jean Hylan, who recently retired after over four decades teaching pre-kindergarten and art at the Brooklin and Sedgwick elementary schools, elsewhere in Maine and beyond, is up first. She banters back and forth with one of the inmates (both the woman and Hylan’s daughter attended The Bay School in Blue Hill) for a while before getting down to business.
“This is basically just a bunch of lines and curves,” Hylan explains, holding up a complicated pencil drawing of a woman’s face. She flips it sideways and upside down, for another perspective.
“If you don’t name it, if you don’t call it ‘face,’ it’s much easier.”
The room goes quiet as the three women set to work, copying the outline.
“See! You’re fabulous,” says Hylan, offering encouragement. “If you can shut the damn brain off, you’ll find out you can draw.”
It can be difficult to measure the effect of making art on recidivism rates or changing behaviors. But classes like Art, Write, Now!, at the very least, offer inmates a safe outlet for expression that may be hard to come by elsewhere inside the jail walls.
“The criteria of being a good artist is different than being a good prisoner,” Laura Pecenco, an associate professor of sociology at San Diego Miramar College, told the New York Times in 2017.
“Being a good artist requires vulnerability.”
Later in the afternoon, during a poetry writing exercise, Wormuth asks for that vulnerability.
“Part of what we ask you guys to do is just trust us and go with us. This is just to have fun. This is just to play around.”
Some of the exercises veer into life-lesson territory, such as the one Wormuth introduces with a quote that he asks one of the women to read and interpret.
“Persistence guarantees that results are inevitable,” she reads, then rephrases. “If you persist in something, you’re going to get results.”
“Think about where you want to be and how you’re going to get there. Think about your ideal life, the one that makes you smile.”
The women bend over their paper, hesitating for a moment. “Think about this. Give some serious thought to this,” says Wormuth, then adds “I won’t ask you guys to share this.”
At the end of class, Wormuth collects the papers (he’ll make copies and return them) and the pencils. He asks students to remember what they wrote as goals.
“Ask yourself — self-reflection — are the things I’m doing helping me to get to where I want to be? Being here, in this class, and doing things with your time that are productive and positive is a step in the right direction.”