Drawing on the Inside: An interview with Jamey Grimes

Jamey Grimes couldn’t stop to talk the other day because he had to get to prison. I laughed, but when we did sit down to talk, it became clear that he is very serious about teaching art at William E. Donaldson Maximum Security Prison in Bessemer and at Brent Correctional Facility. And he is discovering unexpected rewards from his participation there.

Jamey Grimes teaching drawing in Donaldson Prison in 2009.

Last fall, Kyes Stevens, founder and director of the Alabama Prison Arts and Education Project (APAEP), asked art department chair Cathy Pagani if she knew of any studio faculty who might be interested in teaching in Alabama prisons. Jamey Grimes is the first UA art faculty to participate in the program, but APAEP would like to increase that number.

Stevens began the project in 2003 by teaching poetry. She then added instructors to teach creative writing, Southern and African American literature, African American theater, photography, Alabama history, and art classes. The program began under the auspices of the Center for the Arts and Humanities in the College of Liberal Arts at Auburn University. According to the website, there are now more than 35 writers, artists, scholars, and others teaching in twelve correctional facilities in Alabama. Currently several UA faculty teach writing courses in participating Alabama prisons, and the MFA writing program has a graduate scholarship whose recipient is solely devoted to teaching in the prison arts project. The project has also developed general reading libraries in 18 prisons.

Grimes began at the Donaldson facility in the spring of 2009 teaching a drawing class. He now teaches Drawing I and II there. In July he took on another class at Brent Correctional Facility, a lower security prison in Bibb County.

When asked what it’s like teaching art in a maximum security prison, he brims with stories and insights, but some things he won’t talk about. Instructors are taught to be careful about the prisoners’ privacy, and are asked not to talk about particular students. Training with Kyes Stevens at APAEP was vital. “We had a day-long training session, and got a big packet of things to read. She came with me my first day.” Stevens says that it is “completely normal [for instructors] to be nervous.” Stevens requires new and experienced teachers to attend the training session held at the beginning of each new term. Not only do the new instructors benefit from hearing from the old hands, but, she noted, “it creates a community.”

Experiencing the prison world can be eye-opening. Grimes reminds us of the obvious, “[Walking into the prison] you realize it’s a different world.” He said that the security issues in some respects are “more technical” than scary. It is often more about the logistics of getting from one place to another, for example, during “the count” of prisoners, which might take place at any time. At that point, you just have to stop and wait until the count is done.

Grimes teaches in the prison’s chapel area, which he says is an ideal location. There are tables, chairs, and space to spread out. Some inmates have jobs in the chapel, and some are in management positions and help him set up for the class.

Their materials are limited, but adequate for their current needs. Funding comes from grants from many agencies. The project began with funding from the National Endowment for the Arts in 2003. Now the Alabama State Council on the Arts, The Alabama Civil Justice Foundation, the Alabama Humanities Foundation, and the Southern Poverty Law Center are just some of APAEP’s supporters. Funds from the purchase of an Alabama Arts Car Tag also contribute money to this program.

When Grimes talks about his students at Donaldson Maximum Security Prison, it is clear he feels he is filling a real need. “These students have powerful things to say. A lot of them won’t get out anytime soon. This is it for a lot of them. The world has forgotten them. This drawing class is a chance for them to have a voice. It’s tricky to get them to open up. A lot of them are self-taught; several have good facility in drawing.” He sees his role as helping them refine their drawing skills and helping them “open up the possibilities” for creating something more. “It’s a mix between how much I teach [draftsmanship], and how much I get them to express and get something more [from their art] they didn’t expect.”

Grimes is learning at least as much from his students as they are from him. “They come up with amazingly deep material. There is rawness on occasion. It’s inspiring for me – and helpful. In a college environment, it’s easy to get fed up with a few students who are less invested than their parents with their education, to get on the cynical side.” Grimes says it’s refreshing to be around students “who do their homework, who have high expectations for themselves. If I come to class [at Donaldson] and I’m not prepared, I feel like a jerk.”

Some of his UA art students assume the prisoners he teaches are not good students.  He tells his UA students, “My prison students are whooping your asses; they are always working and thinking about [their art].”

Stevens concurs and adds that the prison classes are “more like a graduate-level class in behavior and work ethic.” Speaking from her years of experience and of observing other teachers, Stevens says, “You will never be the same after you teach in the prisons — and that’s a good thing…[You are] teaching for the sake of teaching. The artist gets to teach what he or she wants to teach — to do something because you love it.”

Grimes hasn’t decided if he will teach a course in the fall, but he’s thinking about it. Speaking of the personal rewards, he smiles, “It’s kind of addictive.”

For more information about the program, go to Auburn University’s Alabama Prison Arts + Education Project (APAEP) web page.

The Loupe, newsletter of the UA department of art and art history, fall 2009