Cellblog Number Nine

Exactly one year ago today, I published my first Blog entry a few months earlier. In my Inblaugural Address, I promised to provide readers with a weekly analysis of all things art-related. And while the ‘art’ part of the Blog has proven to be a fascinating read, it is the ‘weekly’ part that has frustrated so many, including myself.

In my defense, I had no idea that a once-a-week deadline would roll around so consistently. And why should a Blogger, so devoted to the facts, have to burden him or herself with trivialities like timetables, and deadlines, or responsibilities around the house?

No…to patiently research and prepare erudite comment on an artist or an art form requires the luxury of time. As well as patience and preparation. So lay off.

No clearer is this the case than with this week’s Blog, which has taken over two months to finish. You see, I have wanted to score an exclusive interview with American painter Telly Mastiff, ever since I first created him as a character. But I knew it would take time. Mastiff’s work is in great demand these days; and with his incarceration at Atwater Penitentiary, access to the artist was obviously limited. I knew what I’d have to go through to face Mastiff one-on-one, but I would stop at NOTHING to get his story.

The guards escorted me to a darkened cell off of the prison courtyard. This was Mastiff’s home and makeshift ‘studio’ for the past five years. The cell looked no different than any other I’d seen, save for the glorious canvases adorning the walls. As I sat waiting for Telly to be ushered back in, I looked through my notes, the guards watching my every move…

Prisoner art has gained in popularity over the past decade or so, with both the casual observer and the avid collector taking notice of the work. Where it sometimes suffers in aesthetic and technique, a good piece of prisoner art can offer insight into both the psyche of a criminal offender and the repressive condition of correctional facilities in America.

Telly Mastiff had actually never picked up a paintbrush before he was picked up for counterfeiting. But Atwater Penitentiary happens to offer a course in rehabilitative arts, and prisoners are openly encouraged to learn an artistic discipline and a healthy new means of expression. Mastiff showed an innate ability at the easel, and though he never believed his stuff was all that special, it served him well. As he immersed himself in his painting, the days and months of his sentence flew by. And while a white-collar convict as diminutive in stature as Mastiff might have faced a rough ride in the pen’, his way with the brush gave him instant credibility among the inmates…

Prisoner art is often simplistic in its imagery; unresolved lines that depict feelings of loneliness and despair. Critics decry the work as derivative, and likely no more or less developed than the work of any sample of the outside population. Some even suggest that the artists in the prison system are, in fact, more interesting than the art itself.

Telly Mastiff’s work is the exception, I believe, with a character and reach that belies his station in life. He may not have been a painter before he was a prisoner, but his pieces are objectively good. And now that they are fetching top prices on the outside, Mastiff’s success is proving to be a clarion call for some of Atwater Penitentiary’s less notable artists-in-hiding. Rocky Strauss’ six-month stay in solitary could have unnerved him, but instead, it inspired him to create a wonderful series of oddly similar still life paintings. Herman Dangle, convicted of tax fraud back in ’04, just finished a fabulous set of figure drawings, whereupon the closer you looked at them, the more the figures seemed to change. Even wily Reggie Garson, who is doing time for forgery, got his art career started by signing his name on all of Herman Dangle’s pieces. The prison had come alive, with a swell of artistic energy…

Over the past decade, a growing number of correctional institutions in the United States have incorporated arts programs into their daily routines. Prison officials are reporting a decline in the number of violent incidents over that same period, and though studies have yet to confirm a causal connection, it is certain that artistic pursuit in our prison system provides the prisoners with a necessary boost of morale, and a renewed sense of purpose.

My interview with Mastiff was scheduled for 8PM, sandwiched in between his parole hearing and the call for ‘lights-out’. I was excited to be speaking to the artist on such a monumental day; having always been a model prisoner, it was widely believed that Telly Mastiff would be granted an unconditional release at the hearing. I only wished the guards had allowed me a writing utensil to document the interview. I looked back at my notes, and thought of all that I had braved to get to this point…

Prisoner art is finally gaining recognition as a valid and contemporary form of Outsider art (see my May 2007 Blog entry on Outsider Art, entitled Blog Wild). Art historians have begun to regard the works with both a critical eye and an open mind, in the hopes that somewhere amongst the rank and file, a Munsch or a Van Gogh might be toiling away at his craft.

It was 8:18PM, and something was clearly amiss. Mastiff had not returned to his cell, the interview was in jeopardy, and the guards were beginning to lose their patience. With each moment that passed, my heart sunk. I re-read my notes, and wondered what might have happened.

“C’mon, Roth. Time to go. It’s lights out in forty…”

Over the days that passed, the events of Telly Mastiff’s parole hearing were the talk of the cellblock. Apparently, Telly had been his usual calm, collected self throughout: smiling, and quietly sketching away in his notebook. But when the time came for his release papers to be signed, Telly leapt up suddenly from his seat and lashed out at the parole board. They say he had to be forcibly restrained; and when control was finally restored, Telly had assured himself a much-extended stay at Atwater. The official reports suggested he snapped. But I knew better.

Telly Mastiff had never believed his stuff was all that special. And in the end, he traded his freedom for a splash of P.R. It saddened me to think that an artist’s bio could outsell his art, but such is life on the inside and out. At least with Mastiff back on the inside, I could still score that exclusive first interview... even if it took the full 5 to 10.

Like I said before, I will stop at NOTHING to get his story. I will sit patiently in my cell, serving out the rest of my sentence. In retrospect, maybe I am a little too devoted to my Blog. But with all this time on my hands, I should easily finish next week’s entry by the fall. And who knows, maybe it’ll be worth some money now…
I end this week’s Blog with another interesting musical fact:

In the late 1950’s, manufacturers of the bass guitar switched to using wood, after years of complaints from marine biologists.


Post a Comment