Saturday, June 20, 2009

Artistic freedom

WUWF art exhibit features works by Escambia County Jail inmates

Rebecca Ross

Behind bars, art blooms.

In a small room at the Escambia County Jail, male inmates let their creativity run free. Using paint and pencils, some participants in the Captured Art program create idyllic scenes of bright skies and blue oceans. Others incorporate darker images —skulls and tombstones — to tell a story.

Several of those original works are now on display, through July 24, at Gallery 88, inside the WUWF Studios on University Parkway.

The Captured Art program began at the Escambia County Jail in 2007 with a volunteer teacher and donated supplies. According to Sybil Sahuque and Sharon Giraud, who began the program, its initial goal was to aid inmates with mental health issues.

"We're amazed at how far we've come since we started," said Sahuque, who serves as the program's sole art instructor. "Now there is a waiting list to get in."

"We never thought it would take off the way it did," Giraud said. "To think that we began with paper and mechanical pencils as only art supplies, we've certainly come a long way."

The popular program, funded mainly through donations of money, materials and the sale of participants' art work, is now open to inmates with exemplary behavior who pass an arts aptitude test. Because of space constraints, 10 or fewer men are accepted into the program at a time.

Sharon Gossett, a Sheriff's Department employee who works with the program, said that Captured Art brings about positive changes in participants.

"Their self-esteem has been encouraged, they want to further their education in art and maybe begin a career with what they have learned," she said. "And they have asked if they can invite the younger inmates into the program to try and mentor to them so that they do not make the same mistakes in life."

Former inmate Clarence Williams, 52, said he found self-worth through the program.

Recently released from jail, Williams was a guest of honor at the "Art from the Inside Out" opening reception Thursday.

"I always knew how to draw, but I never considered myself an artist until I got in the art group in prison," he said. "It helped me realize that I can do positive things with my life. It has made me want to do something with my art, now that I'm out."

Lynne Marshall, director of promotions & outreach at WUWF Public Media, said that the "Art from the Inside Out" exhibit is a perfect means to showcase the prison's unique art program.

"We've done several shows that highlight an issue or cause, such as hospice or breast cancer awareness," Marshall said. "When I heard about the Captured Art program and went to the jail and visited these men, I was just so moved by their stories and their work. I felt it was something that we needed to share with the community."

Susan Watson, regional director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, hopes the exhibit will raise community awareness regarding the need for a mental health court.

"It's really important that we take a look at how to treat inmates with mental illness," Watson said. "The exhibit is also an opportunity to show the community some of the good things that are happening at the jail. This is a humane program that allows inmates to express themselves in a positive manner."

Sahuque, Giraud and Watson hope that the exhibit will inspire artistic volunteers to start a similar program for female inmates.

"Some wonderful things have come out of the Captured Art program," Watson said. "They should be shared."

Additional Facts
Want to go?
- WHAT: "Art from the Inside Out" exhibit.

- WHEN: On display through July 24.

- GALLERY HOURS: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday (excluding holidays).

- WHERE: Gallery 88, inside the WUWF Studios, 11000 University Parkway.

- COST: Admission is free.

- SPONSORS: National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, the Prison Book Project, Escambia County Jail Captured Art program, WUWF Public Media and the ACLU of Florida.

- DETAILS: 474-2787, or online at Those interested in viewing or purchasing additional art may contact Sharon Gossett at 436-9823.

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