MILWAUKEE — Members of the Our Lady of Lourdes Art Guild left the safe and peaceful sanctuary of the Milwaukee parish and ventured into the guarded and solitary surroundings of the Milwaukee County Women’s Correctional Center to participate in a collaborative art project. The ARTangels Outreach Project took place every Monday, Oct. 24 through Nov. 14, to help reconnect prisoners with their spirituality through art.
“Before we entered, we were a little nervous because of all the pressure and planning but once we got in (the prison) all of that evaporated; we were so welcomed, it was like nothing what I expected,” said Dianne Weiss, a member of the art guild. “Our conceived idea (before entering) was gone, it blew everybody’s stereotype, it wasn’t like the movies; all the women were warm and welcoming. They were mothers with children and grandmothers separated from their grandchildren.”
The art guild got the idea to host workshops at the correctional center from a sister at the Dominican Center for Women, an organization dedicated to assisting women with education, housing, employment and health. Previously, the art guild’s organizer, Mary Ann Logic, taught art classes to women at Robert Ellsworth Correctional in Union Grove and wanted to continue to share her art ministry with the women of Milwaukee’s Correctional Center.
“Our guild is a group of likeminded people who are very supportive of each other in whatever way they want to express their art and spirituality,” said Logic. “So, of course, we said yes.”
Logic noted that it took approximately one year to cut through layers of red tape before the art guild could enter the prison. Each volunteer had to be certified in order to gain access into the facility, which required attending a three-hour training orientation, which occurs only twice a year, to learn about the prison’s rules and procedures.
“It was a challenge for me to get in. I had to get a doctor’s note to bring my cane in there; you’re not allowed purses or cell phones, you’re not allowed to bring anything unless it’s OK’d,” said Diane Gilles, a member of the art guild. “There were a lot of hoops to jump. It was like going to the airport with the metal detector.”
“Even the roadblocks put us in the time and place we needed to be,” said Logic.
Coincidentally, the timing of the art guild’s workshops coincided with the Year of Mercy’s theme of visiting the imprisoned as one of the corporal works of mercy.
The focus of the project was to create an art journal with a composition notebook that includes collages depicting their personality, community, favorite animals, shared human experiences, religion and spirituality. The inmates also participated in a number of meditative exercises to help them concentrate on their artwork and faith, including prayer journaling and a lesson on zentangling, which is intentional doodling.
“Invite goodness or God … into your process. This elevates your art activity into a prayer or intentional way to focus your good energy toward that upon which you are reflecting,” stated an objective in the lesson plan for zentangling.
After the art guild’s first visit, the volunteers began to develop friendly connections with the incarcerated.
“We were there because we love to teach, first of all, and not to judge. I didn’t want them to open up in any way that would be too interrogating. I just wanted to embrace the moment because this was one of my dreams. I always thought there was something in me to share with the incarcerated,” said Weiss. “They have heartfelt stories; let’s face it, we have all made different mistakes that we regret and they’re just like us — they really regret. They are paying for their mistakes, they are removed from everybody. It (the art workshop) was so simple but really beautiful because it revealed their passion and things they were missing in life.”
The art guild recounted a story of an inmate who, for three years, has never spent an entire day with her baby. She plans to share her art journal that details her story of incarceration when the child becomes an adult.
“When I started ARTangels, I was extremely depressed. I was in a very dark place. I’ve learned to express my thoughts and feelings through art and therefore express some of my negative energy. I feel more positive,” stated an anonymous inmate in a questionnaire.
“I feel it (art) helped me to look beyond my circumstances – to realize there is hope, that I made a mistake, but that I am not a mistake,” stated another anonymous inmate.
The art guild also noticed that the spiritual lives of the incarcerated began to revive.
“Art, meditation and prayer all go together,” said an anonymous inmate. “The ARTangels literally brought me closer to God. Art can renew.”
The ARTangels hope to return to the women’s correction center next year for another project before their certification expires. They also wish to help introduce art to other groups where instruction and lessons aren’t readily accessible, such as nursing homes.
“We’ve been turned down by a lot of places; they don’t want strangers just walking in and starting to take over. They may already have an art director who may be offended, so it’s not easy to come in and say we want to volunteer,” said Gilles.
Whichever opportunity presents itself to the members of the ARTangel Outreach Project, they hope their creativity and enthusiasm to teach will inspire their students to explore their faith through art.
“We believe the creative spirit is present within every single person. It gets covered up sometimes due to experience, but it’s there,” said Logic. “I told the ladies at the prison, there’s this little light; it’s covered, it’s down, but it’s still there.”