Opportunity

I find some days of my incarceration quite surreal. I have never experienced a situation like this one. My time spent in the prison in Haiti was more of living in extreme poverty surrounded by everyday Haitians. (Read my earlier blogs and upcoming book and you’ll learn about that amazing story where what others meant for evil God used for good) My eight years of living and serving in Haiti prior to the imprisonment, made those living conditions manageable. I never felt threatened really, and those I met and lived with were more like everyday Haitians, not criminals, not individuals that spent most of their life incarcerated.

However the environment in a high security, United States Penitentiary in Terre Haute is quite different. Most inmates here are violent offenders: rapists, murderers, some of the worst of the worse. Most of them have life sentences. Most have been in and out of incarceration their whole life. The U.S. justice system works on a point system, and you get higher points based on the frequency of your offenses, the level of violence, etc. Most inmates have points over 20, some over 50, which keep them in a high security prison.

I was told recently from a case manager that they have never met an inmate at high security with as little points as me. I have a total of 4 points, but my length of sentence makes me qualify for the high security. Really I should be housed at a camp level prison, but because of my length of sentence, I am required to spend up to 10 years in a high security USP.

I find myself emotionally and spiritually in a much better place these days because my perspective has changed. Instead of feeling sorry for myself and feeling like a victim, I see life, I see my incarceration as an opportunity. A phenomenal oppurtunity never the less. Part of my life change has been re-joining the Life Connections Program, a faith based intensive program to help with recidivism, to help individuals desiring a real life change. It is a 18-month program with day long classes daily, taught by religious leaders living locally, working as contractors of the prison. The classes I'm taking are taught from a Christian Catholic perspective. 'and my Spiritual guide is an elderly nun, a devote Roman Catholic retired leader.

I am enjoying the courses and enjoy the conversations even more. This past few weeks the topics we have been diving into are: Honesty, Caring, Responsibility, Open-mindedness, Willingness, and Humility. We spend a lot of time writing on these topics, sharing our struggles and our strengths in these issues as well as identifying scripture that relate to these topics. Then we share what we have written in the classes with the small group.

Our class consists of six inmates currently. Two of the inmates in the class day today are high profile criminals, both of whom you may likely have heard or read about in the national news reports. One individual is serving his life sentence for serious and violent crimes. The other is serving his life sentence for similar and equally egregious crimes. Listening to these individuals open up about humility about real life change has been remarkable. I have learned much from them and as our relationship grows I've been able to share about Christ's redemptive love and forgiveness by sharing my life experiences. Where else would I have an opportunity like this one?

Your Perspective

I had a good weekend visit with my wife and kids this past weekend. We had some great conversations. There were times of remembrance, as we shared fond memories and times of laughter. One of the conversations I had with my oldest daughter, now 13 years old, was when she asked me about what I had for breakfast that morning. I started to explain my piece of pound cake with grits, and a slice of cantaloupe. I stated it all in a positive manner, as it was in fact very good, especially the slice of cantaloupe. It had been a while since I’d had something that fresh and especially cantaloupe. Her immediate response was simply what do you mean daddy? You said that all prison food is disgusting.

I paused remembering past conversations and how negative I have been about so many of my experiences while incarcerated. I spent the next 15 minutes just talking about my changed perspective. Yes, I can focus on the fact that I have never liked grits, or how small that the piece of cantaloupe that was allotted was. I could have focused on the fact that most meals served to adult men are portions smaller then my two year old or eight year old will eat for a meal. I could focus on the food too often being cold, with little or no taste. Or, I could remember the last time I ate cantaloupe and be grateful for a different fruit.I could be thankful for the warm pound cake I ate. It doesn't change what I am eating. It doesn't change my circumstances or environment, but it does change my attitude and my perspective. I tried to model for her the practice of "looking for the good and being grateful for the small things". I explained how that positively affected my day, my meal, my moment. The conversation progressed to her feeling like we are "poor" and we talked about how wrong that was. We are in fact quite rich. She has a mom and a dad that love her with all their heart. She has a closet full of choices of clothes and shoes. Her cupboard at home, her refrigerator at home also has choices of food in them. We are healthy. She has her own room. We have access to great and affordable healthcare and live in a country that helps to give us our food, our insurance, our housing for many of us in need. I reminded her how fortunate we are and in fact how blessed we are and how much better off we are then so many others across the world. It all depends on our perspective. It’s all in our attitude. Choose today to be grateful. Choose today to count your blessings. Choose today to see the good.

Change Is Good

The beginning of the year I moved back to my original unit and re united with old friends. I enjoyed my few months there and it gave me a chance to learn a lot about painting as well as the chance to paint in my cell daily. It gave me the opportunity to form new relationships. At the same time it was some of my lowest moments of my incarceration as I allowed my depression to consume me. My walk with Christ suffered as I drifted away. God has been teaching me so much about His love for me, and for my family. My joy and desire to follow and serve Him was reignited. I made a decision to re join the Life Connection Community and to start daily faith based course work in the intensive 18 month program. I began classes just a week ago, and moved back on the unit this past Friday. It has been a good change. A needed change. I feel that I am in a better place emotionally and am ready for many more challenges that lie ahead. I am excited about the change and look forward to see what God does in and through me in the years to come.

Waterfall

Another subject I borrowed from another inmate, an oil painting of another artist with some changes. Primarily I decided to leave the bear out of the painting. I enjoyed this painting. It was difficult for me. Difficult to create depth. Difficult to paint rocks, making it look three dimensional. Getting all the shadows and light spots on the rocks to make them come to life. Painting the pine forest showing the big trees close up and the small distant ones. Painting moving water is always a challenge. I learned a lot on this landscape, and it didn't come out as nice as I would have liked, but I learned and enjoyed painting this landscape at recreation. It brought back great memories of the many waterfalls we visited as a family both here in the US and in Haiti.

Woman in Forest

My wife sent me this black and white silhouette. I loved it right away. I thought on this painting for days before I started it. I painted the big trees black and the sky orange. Then I started to paint the pine forest. I wanted to paint a modern art, with all kinds of color trees, but it turned out horrible, like an ugly sideways rainbow. So again , I scratched the painting and started over.

This time, I put more yellow in the sky, and decided to paint the trees a complementary color of the sky, and I went with different shades of violet. I learned how to paint a light haze over the forest, and I was really happy with how the woman’s hair came out too. Learning to paint fine hair blowing in the wind. It is a weird painting, but I enjoyed and learned a lot while painting it.

Serenity

So by now I realized I really enjoy painting. This is something I want to stick with and continue to do. Despite my new friend Mikey’s life sentence, being charged with using and distributing marijanna, his days are numbered as he qualified for clemency and is awaiting the day he will return to society.
He offered all his paintings tools to me upon his release. I decided to take a painting class, so I could have my own locker in recreation, and order my own supplies. I picked this subject from a fellow inmate’s book of work by another artist. I like his subjects, and his style. I change a few things, to make it my own. For example, I didn’t add the deer, and left out some of the trees in this landscape. I was happy how this turned out. I specifically liked how the moon reflected off the lake. It was beautiful.
My wife’s Aunt contacted me while I was painting this landscape. Aunt Kat, asked me to paint a happy place for her, and she described a lake in northern New York, where she frequently visited years ago. As she described the setting to me, I thought of this landscape. It made me think about how I use these paintings as my “happy place”. It’s a way to escape the craziness of the surroundings.
I realized the joy I’m experiencing in painting, has made the rate at which I am creating pieces is beyond what my wife’ apartment can only hold. I asked some close friends to help me share these paintings and in no time, they launched a website for me to blog and display my artwork. We hope that I will be able to sell the art work to support myself, and someday help support my family. Never the less, I enjoy painting, I am eager to learn and become better, and hopeful someday others will enjoy these paintings too.

Thorns on the Journey

I wrote a book, (well kind of), while incarcerated in Haiti. I named it “The Journey.” Again, I find myself writing about my experiences while incarcerated in the U.S. I I picked this field (not many people around me understood the why behind this subject), but this made me think of “The Journey”. Like the image, my life has had some cracks in it, and plenty of rocks. Both life and death in nature surround the path. At the end of it you see green trees and mountains. Plenty of life. The sky is dark, threatening a storm. The journey I’m on is surrounded by life and death. I walk the path that is broken at times with rocks in the way. But I look forward to the promise, the promise of life everlasting in Heaven with my Father. I press onward, with the hope of the end. So no matter where I am on my journey today, I know it has a happy ending. I am secure in knowing I have eternal life in heaven. It makes the journey yesterday, today, and tomorrow more bearable because I know the end. This is what inspired this painting.

Real Work

Well being incarcerated technically you are suppose to work...I say that lightly because most jobs pay between $5.00 and $20.00 a month, but at the same time, most jobs don’t expect much from you. My job at recreation is no exception. Most days, I just go up there and paint my paintings daily...I do clean up the sink after I rinse out my brushes and keep my area clean. That, however, is the extent of it. This week it was time to wax the floors, and I volunteered to help. I’m glad I did! I spent the last week waking up early to strip, wax and buff the floor for about 10 hours each day. It was nice to feel physically tired. I was proud of what I had help get accomplished. People were curious if I got paid extra, or was given an incentive...but no, I just miss “real work. “ I miss having a purpose, outside of painting. May sound crazy, but It was nice to be tired and sore for a week.

Pears on Blue

This was my first effort at what is called “still life”. I just think of them as pictures women hang in their kitchen. I learned that detail and shadowing are essentials in painting still life. I had a difficult time blending the different shades of these pairs. The canvas kept showing through, which annoyed me. The highlight of this painting for me was learning how to paint a water drop. It is intense and difficult, easy and fun, all at the same time. This was also the first painting I painted in my cell.
I moved units this month and one of the few advantages is I am allowed to paint in my cell. This comes in handy with lock downs when we are confined to our cells. My cellie in this unit is an 87 year old bank robber. He enjoys watching me paint. This seems to be a “win win”. I can double my productivity and keep my mind much more busy with now painting at recreation and in my cell.

Sill Life

I took the painting class that was eight weeks long. This clay pot was the class project. The courses here are all taught by inmates, and not taught that well, and not taken very serious by most. I needed to take the class in order to acquire my own locker down at recreation. I sketched out the class project for all 20 inmates. We were taught by using acrylic paint. I realized in the first class that I hated acrylics. However, I stuck with it for four more weeks. Acrylics dried too fast. They didn’t mix well and it was not a smooth finish. It was difficult to lighten or darken. Honestly , I was just used to oil painting. So instead of giving up and throwing it away, I finished the project in oil.

Eagle at Sunset

This was one of my first animal paintings. I did this painting in my cell. I learned how to lay in the background and not lose the lines of the eagle. I found this subject in a magazine, and it included some odd looking trees in the foreground, which I choose not to include. I enjoyed painting this eagle as It symbolizes freedom for me. How I long for freedom and am learning to be content with where I am from day to day. I am learning to enjoy the freedoms I have inside these prison walls. One is the freedom of joy which cannot be taken away. So painting this eagle brought me joy. My friend claimed this painting as his own, as he enjoys spreading his own wings of independence and freedom. It reminded me of the simple verse in Isaiah 40:31 "But those who trust in the Lord will receive new strength. They will fly as high as eagles. They will run and not get tired. They will walk and not grow weak." I look forward to that day.

This was another subject I pulled out of an old calendar. This was a picture that was taken in California in the middle of all the forest fires. This bird was perched on a sign at a State Park. The bird caught a mosquito in its mouth and I choose not to include that detail. The Pink light source caught my eye. I learned to put detail on the bird using a liner brush. This technique I use now in many paintings. I enjoyed this painting and marveled at the different colors from the sky depending on the setting, the time, and the surroundings. Another painting completed in my cell. Shine On

This was another subject I pulled out of an old calendar. This was a picture that was taken in California in the middle of all the forest fires. This bird was perched on a sign at a State Park. The bird caught a mosquito in its mouth and I choose not to include that detail. The Pink light source caught my eye. I learned to put detail on the bird using a liner brush. This technique I use now in many paintings. I enjoyed this painting and marveled at the different colors from the sky depending on the setting, the time, and the surroundings. Another painting completed in my cell.

Barn at Dusk

I got the subject from another inmate. I changed it to make my own. I learned to paint the sky a wash dark on edges and brighten it as it comes in. I worked on the shadows of the fence and such. I enjoyed this landscape and learned how to paint planks of wood, and stone blocks in buildings. Creating depth in the landscape as well. We have always preferred living in the country both in Florida and in Texas. This landscape reminded me of much of my surroundings in those two places.

Paladin Portrait

So my dad sent me two photos of my Aunt Alice dog. My plan was to only paint one. I liked the dog running at the beach the best, but when I was done I was unhappy about how small the dog was. I decided to paint a portrait of him. In the picture he is laying in the grass by the pool against a metal shed. But I decided just to paint the dog with a flat background, similar to a portrait. Painting a primarily black dog is hard. His eyes, nose was the most difficult as it is lost in the dark shade. My one regret, I didn’t’ let it dry totally before I varnished it, which made a streak right in his face. I was pretty mad at myself. Oil takes a REALLY long time to dry, and too often I rush things. I need to slow down and not rush projects out. I enjoyed painting Paladin again and I hope my Aunt will enjoy this painting.

Crown of Thorns and Cross

This panel was drawn by my old cellie. It was another one that I painted in my cell. It was by far one of my favorite pieces I painted of his. I loved the orange background. Making the crown of thorns with the strands, adding the light and dark to make it look round. I added three lights shining on the cross, and changed it to two at the end. I kept Jesus shadow only. This was another act of worship for me as it humbled me to remember the sacrifice my Lord made on the cross. I enjoyed painting this and hope someone will use it someday as a remembrance of Christ’s sacrifice as I have.

Holding Hands

Most of my subjects to paint have been found in magazines and calendars. This was painted from a photograph. My close friend is a publisher and an author of some great books. He sent me this photograph of his last book cover. It was intimidating as I have never painted skin tone, and painting hands I heard was particularly difficult. I enjoyed this painting, and was surprised how it came out was pleased, and love that I can do something tangible to give friends and family. In painting the sun that shines through the two hands I shaped it into a heart, as it went with his theme of love and marriage. Another painting done in my cell, another joy to paint.

Peppers on Blue

Another still life painting, this one came out much better than I had thought. Again painting rain drops was fun. The key with these is to make it look three dimensional and having shadows. Providing light and dark areas. It was harder then what you would think to make the peppers shine. Another painting completed in my cell, another joy in painting. I hope someone will someday enjoy this in their kitchen.

Violin

This was a project started by another inmate, but never finished. He got busy and distracted with working at Unicor. I am busy buying blank panels from inmates to keep up with my painting,. He offered to sell this project. He helped me by teaching me the art of mirroring, and reflection on the table top. I saw this and immediately thought of a friend who is a teacher and gives music lessons. I knew she would love it upon completion. So without hesitation, I bought it and got to work finishing it up in the next two weeks. It turned out beautifully, better than I expected. It made me realize it wasn’t about the tools I had, the paint I had or the canvas I had. It was about the subject matter and how well it was done. As this was done one of the cheapest panels that are sold. Yet in my opinion turned out to be one of the best pieces.

Man and Girl

Seven years ago, ended the saga of my 5 months incarceration (and two days) in Haiti. Upon being released I had 3 pilot friends offer to fly over and transport me back to the US. So, after two days of celebrating my release with the Haitian orphanage kids, I flew back to Florida in a private plane. I landed on the tarmac in Sarasota Florida, with dozens of friends and family awaiting me. Ryann, then 6, didn’t know I was coming in. As I deplaned, I heard her yell, “daddy”, and she ran and jumped in my arms. I just knelt down with my arms extended. It was a great day reuniting with my family and friends. Leann was nine months pregnant with Joseph and gave birth to him just two days later. You can’t help but smile at a child’s joy to be reunited with a parent. I hope someone will enjoy this painting, as I enjoyed painting it in my cell.

Three Kids Fishing

My wife mails me pictures monthly, mostly of her and the kids’ adventures, eating, shopping, hiking, karate, dance, dentist appointments, etc. This helps to keep me involved in the kids’ day to day activities. Lately she has been googling images, printing them out and mailing them to me to use as inspiration for paintings. The 3 kids fishing is an example of one of those that she mailed to me. It caught my eye, just black and white. I liked how they were all holding hands as they were walking to fish. That’s why I choose to paint it. I enjoyed painting this in my cell, and hope it brings someone else joy too.