The Daily Tar Heel

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Saturday December 4th

Why the Caged Bird Paints

Artistic Expression Helps Inmates Reform Themselves, Help Others

The N.C. Correctional Institution for Women is an ugly place. Squat, red-brick buildings; tall, razor-wire fences; guards and gatehouses make for a gray landscape. But one woman has found beauty in this drab environment -- a beauty that she says is helping her to become a better person.

Renee Morton looked at the projection slides laid out on the table and smiled. They are pictures of works of art she has done, one of which won her first place in the N.C. Department of Correction's art contest last year.

"I've always admired art," said Morton, 44, who is serving a 35-year sentence on drug charges. "I basically taught myself. It takes a lot of time, concentration and development. It takes a lot of energy, too."

Morton's work, brightly colored portraits of smiling family and friends done with colored pencils or paint, doesn't reflect her grim surroundings. But it does reflect is the artist's increased confidence and sense of self-worth.

"Art has helped me to better my train of thought," she said. "It's helped my ability and my capability."

The therapeutic powers of art have long been recognized in prison systems around the country. Now various organizations are latching on to the idea that art can help rehabilitate prisoners and are using it to help the community at large.

"Art improves inmates, and if you improve inmates they are better citizens when they get out," said Lynne Vantriglia, founder of Art Behind Bars, a nonprofit organization in Key West, Fla., that helps inmates use art as a form of community service.

Vantriglia, an artist, started the group in 1994 following a tour of Florida's Monroe County Jail.

"I was appalled at the lack of anything productive for the inmates to do," she said, herself a victim of a violent crime.

Art Behind Bars offers art classes in the Monroe County Jail and supplies inmates with paper, paints, pencils or whatever else they need for their art.

The organization sells the inmates' work at art shows or donates them to charities who auction them off. In the end, all the proceeds go to charity.

Over the past six years, Art Behind Bars has raised almost $30,000 for groups like Habitat for Humanity and the American Red Cross.

Chapel Hill's Restitution Inc. is another group helping inmates to help others. Lawyer Betsy Wolfenden and her husband, Michael Fullwood, founded the organization in 1998 to sell art by death row inmates, donating the proceeds to the victims' families or the charity of the inmate's choice.

"I felt that (inmates) had these gifts that they could use to give back to the people they had harmed," Wolfenden said.

Fullwood is on death row for the 1985 murder of his daughter's mother. He started drawing and painting after his sentence began, and realized he could use his new talent to help people.

"I was talking to him about his artwork," said Wolfenden. "One day he said, 'Well, I want to use it to make restitution.'"

By selling postcards of Fullwood's art, Restitution Inc. has started a fund to pay for his daughter's college education.

The group has also helped other inmates to give back to society, including Harvey Green, who was executed in Raleigh in September 1999.

Wolfenden insists that the works for sale by Restitution Inc. aren't just novelty pieces, but have real artistic merit.

She cited the "mudworks" series by Steven King Ainsworth, on death row at California's infamous San Quentin prison.

While in solitary confinement, Ainsworth made a paintbrush out of a straw from a broom and his own hair.

His only medium was hot water and coffee grounds. The end result was a series of impressive monochromatic landscapes.

Wolfenden holds up Ainsworth, Fullwood and the other inmates she works with as examples.

"Someone can make a terrible, terrible mistake but still rise up and make something good," she said.

Sitting in her blue prison uniform, Morton echoed those sentiments.

"(Art) is something that has driven me to change," she said. "All I'm asking for is the opportunity to get out and express myself."

The Arts & Entertainment Editor can be reached at artsdesk@unc.edu.

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