Talent From Inside

literary and art publication helps incarcerated artists find their voices

Eric Rasmussen

Most artists and writers can readily find places to show off their work, whatever their aspirations. Social media, blogs, local and national publications give those who put pens or paintbrushes to paper a way to find a community of like-minded creators.

“It surprises people that inmates and the at-risk population have a lot of valuable information and creativity to share. We see their desire to encourage, ask for, and offer forgiveness, and inspire others.” – Keri White, director, The Pen Project

There are some artists out there who can’t access such outlets, and – even more regrettably – these are the painters, drawers, and authors who need them most. Keri White and her husband, Chad, the proprietors of Eau Claire Design Co., learned this first-hand as part of the group 513FREE, an organization that provides worship and music experiences for the incarcerated. According to Keri, the inmates they met through their ministry shared their own lyrics and poetry with the musicians in return – and then testimonies, stories, drawings. and paintings. This exchange fostered a group of artists and writers at the Jackson Correctional Institution in Black River Falls, which started discussing a publication that could highlight the talent found in correctional and treatment facilities across the country.

The result is a print journal titled The Pen Project. The first issue came out in 2016, and after modest local beginnings, the current issue, printed in January, numbered 2,000 copies that reached 50 different facilities in nine states.

“It surprises people that inmates and the at-risk population have a lot of valuable information and creativity to share,” Keri said. “We see their desire to encourage, ask for, and offer forgiveness, and inspire others.”

The journal itself is an exceptionally attractive product. The art spans a large swath of subject matter and styles, from portraits to pencil drawings of football players. The writing ranges from poetry that discusses the complicated emotions associated with spending time in prison to frank testimonials of mental illness and drug use.

One feature readers will notice is the works’ ability to connect with audiences both narrow and broad. Several pieces speak directly to people in the correctional system, like a recipe for apple pie that can be made with common institutional ingredients and a microwave, and a Q&A that discusses what to expect out of an initial parole meeting. Other pieces seek to connect with a wider audience, including heartfelt poetry and visual art that features redwoods, elk, and other aspects of the natural world. When it comes to selecting what work will fill the pages, The Pen Project asks two questions. Could this submission encourage positive life change? Does this submission reflect authentic creativity, and is it well done?

“The original artwork and creative hand-written submissions we receive contain raw emotion and incredible use of the limited mediums and materials inmates have access to,” Keri said.

Another standout aspect of the journal is its connection to faith and Christianity. Most pages feature Bible quotations, and many of the authors talk about their experiences with finding religion as part of their paths to rehabilitation. While The Pen Project’s roots are solidly in the world of Christian ministry, Keri explains that their scope is wide. They welcome art submissions featuring any subject, and in future issues they hope to include writing that is founded in other religious traditions. “By being inclusive in this way, we hope to show inmates and those at-risk that their questions, life stories, and points of view are valuable,” Keri said.

In order to offer even more exposure to The Pen Project’s artists, The Heyde Center in Chippewa Falls is exhibiting a gallery of work from the journal through March 28. On Thursday, March 14, a reception will feature local authors Bruce Taylor and Patti See, who will read poetry submitted by inmates, as well as formerly incarcerated writers and artists (not to mention Ramone’s ice cream and SHIFT Cyclery coffee and waffles). Through this event, and through the expanding mission of the publication, Chad and Keri hope to continue providing a worthwhile outlet to contributors, like J.S., who says, “The Pen Project has given me and many others a positive way to express ourselves through talents, gifts and abilities. The love and hope that’s found within its pages continues to encourage, convict, and provoke thoughtful reflection.”

Voices of the Pen Project • Thursday, March 14, 6-8pm • The Heyde Center for the Arts, 3 S. High St., Chippewa Falls • FREE • (715) 828-8322 • thepenproject.org

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