Life behind bars can be dreary, and the concrete walls and harsh fluorescent lighting in most facilities don't exactly spark inspiration. In addition, the Minnesota prison system recently experienced the first-ever death of an on-duty officer in its corrections history, which created additional anxiety for prisoners and officers alike.
But Martha Ackerman—the wife of Prison Fellowship® president and CEO James Ackerman—and skilled artist Stephanie Segel had a vision to bring art and peace to prisons while developing a sense of community for prisoners. So they designed a restorative art program they named Create: New Beginnings, and they recently brought it to MCF Shakopee, a women's prison in Minnesota.
Their art-based, in-prison workshops on topics such as shame, self-doubt, empathy, and forgiveness have been well-received. Then, a conversation about how great it would be to paint a large, permanent mural on a prison wall sprouted into an amazing moment of healing for the prison staff and residents.
PLANTING THE SEEDS
Several years ago, Tracy Beltz, the warden at Shakopee, spearheaded an initiative called the Positive Peer Culture Group (PPCG), with a vision to grow a group of incarcerated leaders who would strive to shift prison culture to have a more prosocial and restorative focus. Through this initiative, five positive peer values were established: personal investment and commitment, parity and gender responsiveness (using positive language that empowers rather than demeans women), integrity and honesty, accountability, and balance.
Martha, Stephanie, and Pamela Page, co-chair of the PPCG and program manager of Shakopee’s Prison Fellowship Academy® (a holistic life-transformation program for prisoners), discussed the idea of creating a mural that the prisoners could help paint, and Pamela then presented the idea to the warden.
Warden Beltz saw the potential impact such visual artwork could have on a positive prison culture and approved the project. Stephanie and Martha then began conceptualizing a mural that could communicate the PPCG’s five core values.
"Whenever we do our workshops, we always bring in fresh flowers," says Martha. "Years ago, I'd read the book The Language of Flowers, about a homeless woman who works at a florist shop and uses the Victorian language of flowers to make her arrangements."
Martha explained that certain flowers represent special messages, such as red roses for love and pink roses for fondness. For the mural, a daffodil was used for personal investment and commitment, while an orchid represented parity and gender responsiveness. A calla lily was chosen for integrity and honesty, a magnolia for accountability, and a gladiolus for balance.
"Whenever we do our workshops, we always bring in fresh flowers," says Martha. Certain flowers represent special messages, such as red roses for love and pink roses for fondness.
BLOOMING BEHIND BARS
The mural project was filled with symbolism. Martha and Stephanie decided to paint the flowers inside a three-dimensional shadowbox, symbolizing the idea of finding beauty even when it’s behind glass or in a sealed enclosure.
On the DOC's peer values printout, each value is listed in a uniquely colored description box, so the women choose those respective colors for the backgrounds of the five shadowboxes.
To involve the prison's residents in a hands-on capacity, "I came up with a 'paint-by-numbers' kind of thing," says Stephanie. "We stenciled in the outline and mixed all the colors and labeled them, and then guided the ladies which colors would go where."
Before the project began, women who wanted to participate were asked to submit a sample piece of art, and all who submitted were allowed to help. Stephanie explained that some of the women with more of an artistic knack would paint the more detailed areas while others would paint the bigger spaces.
Sixteen prisoners came in groups of four to paint, working alongside volunteers and staff in harmony, all of them feeling inspired and proud.
Sixteen prisoners came to paint,
working alongside volunteers and staff in harmony—
all of them feeling inspired and proud.
PAINTING A BRIGHTER PICTURE
The mural was being painted mere days after the on-duty officer's death, so officers and prisoners alike were feeling on-edge. This Create: New Beginnings project brought a welcome feeling of comfort during a tense time.
"This project came at a perfect time," said Warden Beltz. "We needed something to help boost our spirit."
Prisoners and staff remarked how emotional the mural made them, some through tears. Everyone involved agreed that the painting process was very calming. "Several inmates said to us, 'This whole event is making our entire year,'" says Stephanie. "It was so special."
A LEGACY OF GRACE AND BEAUTY
The result of this three-day painting project, called "Bloom Where Your Are Planted," is breathtaking. "Not only is it bright and meaningful," says Martha, "but even the 'bloom where you are planted' theme translates anywhere, with positive values and beliefs, and symbolism with grace and purpose."
"It was an amazing project!" remarked Warden Beltz, who said that many staff members have shared positive feedback on the mural and commented on its beauty.
Martha and Stephanie hope this painting will be an inspiration to the women of Shakopee—and even to other facilities that might want to follow suit on similar art projects. The flowers sparked beauty and inspiration, and they brightened up more than just a hallway.
And those 16 prisoners who held the paintbrushes get to rest in the knowledge that they created a legacy that will grace the halls long after they leave.
Photo by: Shakopee Correctional Facility
"Several inmates said to us, 'This whole event is making our entire year.'"
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