Last Thursday, I visited another prison – a minimum security prison, where the men had more freedom of movement and more programming than the one I had visited the day before. They were excited because they had received approval for a roving music room – a set of donated musical instruments in cabinets on wheels that they would build. They were creating sign up sheets and structures for sharing them with an air of celebration.
If the songs shared in the circle that day were any indication, the talent is quite high – several men have been musicians in their lives outside of prison. Blues, country, rock, a tender and touching version of “Closer to Fine” by the Indigo Girls, original guitar instrumentals, solos joined by impromptu percussion on the chairs – all were shared, and performed well.
Others read poetry they had written, or shared drawings they had created.
One young man’s energy was so strong that he had to stand as he amped everyone up about the kind of events they could plan as an arts group. He delivered a rousing monologue, made up on the spot – a piece of theatre for the day that got everyone smiling. “See!” he said, “We could make people smile!”
Others talked about providing simple entertainment for the upcoming family picnic – bubbles for the visiting children, and also for the adults. “Everyone loves bubbles!” said these men deemed to be too violent to be in society right now.
Two men earnestly explained that they had been selected by a program for ex-convicts to train to be mentors to youth, to hopefully keep others from repeating their mistakes. Their desire to help others as soon as they got “out” was inspiring.
Another man updated the group: “When I arrived today, I wasn’t really sure if I was having a good day or not, I wasn’t sure how I felt. But now,” he said with a slight smile, “I’ve decided I am having a good day.”
The group talked about fatherhood, and explored the question of “who raised me?” (one parent or two? a community? myself? a region?)
One of the men excitedly brought out a couple hundred colorful photos taken around the world, including some from Oregon (where this prison is located), that someone had sent him. The men pored over images of mardi gras, oceans, mountains, stars, deserts, skyscrapers, the depths of flowers. The images engaged their imaginations, gave them delight, as we talked. They were hungry for beauty.
I believe we all are hungry for beauty. Sometimes our hunger is satiated so easily, we don’t notice that people (artists) have fed it.
I have always been aware (and am even more aware as I visit prisons) of how our environments affect us subconsciously; how a lack of anything aesthetically pleasing or engaging can stifle life. Gray and generic walls (or cubicles, for some of us) can make life feel more gray in general. And yet, these men paid attention to details, to beauty. They involved themselves deeply in a) the small pieces of beauty they could find, and b) making others’ lives better by creating more beauty within their current limitations.
When I returned to the neighborhood where I am staying this week, I looked around at things I had earlier walked past without really noticing. Do we respect and acknowledge our hunger for beauty in the way these men do? Do we even notice what’s around us? Do we value something as simple as a photo, or a small sculpture? Do we see the range of colors and shapes around us that raise our quality of life in simple but cumulatively powerful ways? And what do we contribute to feed our collective need for playful, delightful, surprising beauty in the environments we share?