The Artists of Sing Sing - The New Yorker
Darrian Bennett Illustration by João Fazenda
By Adam Iscoe
January 17, 2022
Journalists incarcerated at San Quentin produce a monthly broadsheet newspaper. Cowboys locked up at the Louisiana State Penitentiary perform at the Angola Prison Rodeo (events include barrel racing and a game of poker in which four men play seated at a table while a loose bull bucks around). Recently, at Sing Sing Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison thirty miles up the river from New York City, several painters gathered for an art show. “There was a second earlier today when I thought this wasn’t going to happen,” Ryan Lawrence, who wore wire-frame glasses and paint-splattered work boots, said. He had a fresh stick-and-poke tattoo of a lion on his left arm.
“Oh, man, the situation was rough,” another artist, Charles Minson, said, wiping sweat from his bald head. He wore a pressed red cotton shirt tucked into state-issued green trousers. “Last night, they had a big thing in the yard—”
“—There was a big fight in the yard,” another artist cut in. “There was a riot.”
Minson went on, “Tear gas, everything! You know, anytime you’re in this type of setting, tension is flaring up, the wrong person can say the wrong thing, and it could get crazy.”
Darrian Bennett, who is known as Plank—“I’m a fan of ‘SpongeBob,’ and there’s a character named Plankton”—stood listening. He chimed in, “I have a policy: I don’t go to the yard.” He laughed. “I can’t paint in the yard. I can’t draw in the yard. I can barely read in the yard.” Plank wore pink Pumas with pink laces, and a pink sweatshirt. He continued, “I was always taught, ‘Go to the school building.’ ”
In the school building, a classroom overlooked the A Block yard, which was ringed in razor wire. Iron bars on the windows, instructional posters taped to the walls. (“Ditch double negatives!”) Visual artists living in B Block and Five Building mingled with actors and singers from Seven Building. Spectators from the Honor Housing Unit, who had just finished a dinner of whitefish with white rice and greenish vegetables, took their seats. A prison administrator scratched his nose, which peeked over a cotton mask; a corrections officer wearing sunglasses slumped in a plastic chair at the back of the room.
One spectator, Tim Walker, a muscular man with a soft voice, pulled out a Moleskine notebook filled with poems and colorful marker illustrations. “I’m almost tempted to put my notepad up there,” he said, gesturing toward several art works displayed on easels. Alen Haymon, who wore a state-issued white cotton mask over a salt-and-pepper beard, leaned in. “Art is art. No matter the size or the style,” he said. “Put it up there!”
The exhibition was hosted by Rehabilitation Through the Arts, a nonprofit that works with dancers, actors, poets, and artists at six prisons in New York. R.T.A.’s teachers have put on art classes, workshops, and performances with the aim of helping people in prison develop life skills. (Nationwide, the recidivism rate for incarcerated people is about sixty per cent; less than five per cent of R.T.A. participants re-offend.) The show was the brainchild of Plank, who said he wanted more attention for visual artists. “I came up with the idea for an in-house art show because I wanted to show love to the guys,” he said. “I wanted the guys to have an opportunity to be seen on a grander scale.
In 2019, R.T.A. appealed to the prison’s administration to hold Plank’s art show, and it agreed. It was the first event to take place since the coronavirus halted arts programming at the prison. “Tonight is about family and love,” Plank said, pointing to one of his paintings (title: “The One with All the Books”), which depicted the writers Ta-Nehisi Coates and Nikole Hannah-Jones sitting behind a pile of hardbacks. “I feel like these two people have a lot of love for their people, Black people!”
Plank introduced a few artists, who stood before a chalkboard to discuss their work. First up, Gary Butler: “I think this piece is about all the ongoing debate about global warming and fossil fuels and all that kind of stuff. ” His painting (“The title, I think, is ‘Mother Earth’ ”) showed a woman in a liquid shawl floating above a crystalline river, which was certainly not the Hudson.
David McFadden: “The reason I started working with acrylic is ’cause I couldn’t get my pencils sharpened. We need a pencil sharpener!” (The artists use nail clippers and emery boards to sharpen their pencils; oil paint is prohibited.)
Minson: “Y’all see it’s glossy, right?” He pointed to a painting (“Boo’d Up”) of a couple dressed for a night on the town. “Well, that’s floor wax!”
Lawrence: “ ‘Home’ is a word we use a lot around here. It’s different for everybody. ‘What are you gonna do when you get home?’ ‘Man, I can’t wait till I get home.’ But it’s not that simple for me.” His triptych collage depicted a motorcycle. “I’ve taken so much, especially from my family. And it’s now in pieces.”
Walker: “We’ve watched one another change from ignorance to consciousness to accountability. ”
McFadden: “Instead of painting this piece, I coulda been outside acting crazy, like the rest of these guys. But, no, I choose to settle my difference and take my angers and frustrations out on the canvas.” ♦
Published in the print edition of the January 24, 2022, issue, with the headline “Artists at Work.”