Cellblock Visions - prison art in america
prison art in america - Phyllis Kornfield

About Phyllis Kornfeld


When my first grade teacher told my parents she thought I had a special talent for art, overnight, it seemed, I was showered with art supplies, art lessons, and abundant admiration from family and friends. I made art consistently, and displayed it as I grew up, and always knew myself as an ARTIST. After high school, I entered the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, then called The Philadelphia Museum College of Art. I wanted to specialize in advertising art but my advisor suggested Art Education because advertising was "a killer rat race" and as a woman, I would be better off trained as a teacher so I could have babies intermittently and teach in between. This was the fifties and I took his advice.

Cellblock Visions - alternative art
Photograph by Linda Fry

It actually worked out the way he said. I taught art through the years in a spectrum of settings - K -12 to jr. college, experimental public school projects, Golden Age centers, museum classes, and I also raised two daughters. I loved teaching, eventually more than painting, but the right setting eluded me until 1983, when I applied for a job teaching art to prisoners. It was unknown territory to me, and very intriguing. I was hired to hold classes at three Oklahoma state penitentiaries: Mabel Bassett Correctional Center for Women (all security levels - minimum to death row) and two medium security prisons for men.

I was hooked. The first day my new students brought amazing pictures and objects they had already made without benefit of art class or real supplies. I saw immediately that it would be ridiculous to proceed with the idea that I was the artist and the inmates were not. They were unschooled and spontaneous, in touch with a very deep source. It became my priority to keep it that way.

After 40 years, I continue to conduct art classes -county jail to maximum security - men and women. These programs are surviving and thriving thanks to generous non-profit assistance, and to farsighted support from the institutions themselves. Personally, it is always an illuminating exciting event to see the prisoners discover something very positive, and mysterious, coming from inside themselves. The art is often miraculously fresh, and despite the context, there is a lot of joy.

Cellblock Visions - alternative art
Prison Art Class in the Library, 1989

Teaching Art in Prison: Exploration into Unmapped Territory.

I consider unplugging to be my primary function as an art teacher. Having been immersed in art all of my life - as a student, a painter, a teacher, a patron and friend of painters - I am convinced that art making is a natural human impulse and everybody has the potential. But often, internal and external life events block the access.

I try not to get in the way of the inmate’s natural expression, no conventional "lessons" or the imposition of my own concepts and techniques. So many of the prisoners are overtaken with creative force as soon as they get their hands on the materials, and all I have to do is get out of the way. With others, I have found ways to help them free themselves from their ideas. It doesn’t take much. A few examples follow.

Charles Mosby Art Class (detail) mixed media
Charles Mosby, Art Class, mixed media

Talk about the meaning of visual cliche, list examples, and periodically place a moratorium on them.

  • no eyeballs for three months
  • no birds shaped like V’s for six months
  • absolutely no hearts with cracks in them.

Discourage illustrations of "just something out of my mind" or "how I feel" , in order to avoid the above.

Offer a minimum of technique and theory - shading, mixing colors, lights and darks. With rare exceptions (someone unafraid to take artistic risks), do not teach perspective, composition, color theory, or other formal principles of art.

Require Doodling - here defined as drawing while the mind is focused elsewhere (talking on the phone, engrossed in T.V. ) No thinking is permitted. Responsibility is given over to the pen, as if it were an independent agent. Use newsprint so there’s no inhibition about wasting material and unerasable ballpoint pen making judging and correcting impossible.

Charles Mosby Art Class (detail) mixed media
Joe LeBlanc a pen a radio a mind a heart and time pen

Art Rorschach - the discovery of subject matter within ambiguous formations.

In a black & white xerox of a cloudy sky for example, find figures, faces, and strange scenarios - Draw directly onto xeroxes to bring the subject into focus.

Charles Mosby Art Class (detail) mixed media
John Wills untitled pencil on photocopy

Or a black & white xerox of snow covered pine trees with infinite tiny configurations. Cut a small window out of another piece of paper and seek images. Fix upon a picture that presents itself and enlarge that to a full drawing on good paper.

Charles Mosby Art Class (detail) mixed media

Charles Mosby Art Class (detail) mixed mediaCharles Mosby Art Class (detail) mixed media
Anonymous untitled pencil

Demand productivity, positivity, responsibility, and truth.

Charles Mosby Art Class (detail) mixed media
Tyrone O’Neil Merry Xmas mixed media

Dear Phillys -
Some people say your old and mean
And others say your not
But all I know is your the way to go
Thanks a very very lot.

For booking information please contact phylkorn10@gmail.com


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Cell Block Visions: Prison Art in America