Drawing Lessons at a Juvenile Prison
In August 2010, I visited the Mozhaysk Juvenile Prison for the first time as a volunteer for the Center for Prison Reform and gave a drawing lesson to inmates. I have continued working with the Center, teaching master classes on drawing at the girl’s penitentiaries in Novy Oskol and Ryazan, and the boy’s penitentiary in Aleksin, but Mozhaysk is the only place which I have visited more or less regularly.
Victoria Lomasko with students at Mozhaysk Juvenile Prison
There is almost no funding for the trips. We travel by commuter train, carrying everything we need for classes in our backpacks, so with rare exceptions we use the simplest materials—paper and black pens—during the lessons.
The Center organizes the trips once a month on particular days. If you miss a trip, you have to wait for the next time round.
The rotation of inmates at the penitentiary is constant. Some are released on parole, while others are transferred to adult prisons. New inmates show up all the time. Over a six-month period, the roster of my drawing group changes completely.
Some teens are well educated, while everything is completely new to others. Many of them have psychological problems.
In short, teaching classes at a penitentiary is a tricky task: you have to experiment and develop your own lesson plan. At the exhibition Really Useful Knowledge you can look over two lessons from my program, “Form and Counterform” and “Ceramics Painting,” as well as the outcome of a creative exchange between the Mozhaysk Prison and prisons in Buenos Aires, which my friend the translator Anna Voronkova helped organize. After returning from Argentina, Anna became one of the main volunteers at the Center for Prison Reform.
Why do we travel to the prisons? The Center’s staff and volunteers bring clothing to inmates about to be released on parole, and hygiene items, birthday presents, and treats to the other inmates. Staff and volunteers also provide psychological assistance and collect material for preventive publications aimed at troubled teens. Another of the Center’s missions is to recruit creative people willing to work regularly with the teens, who need to interact with people from the outside world no less than they need shampoo and socks.
I realize I cannot teach someone to draw when lessons are so infrequent. My emphasis is on developing analytical thinking (the structure of the drawing) and empathy (working on the image). It is also vital to help the kids gain self-confidence, so all the pictures are shown at exhibitions. We photograph these exhibitions and bring the photos back to the prison to show the kids.
The kids find out about the drawing lessons from their minders, but more often they hear about them by word of mouth. Around five to ten students come to my classes. There is often a self-taught artist among them who really wants to learn to draw.
Oleg: “There are swastikas encrypted in Raphael’s drawings.”
Oleg draws a lot. He has his own views of Renaissance masterpieces.
A drawing by Oleg. “Look over there—wogs!” “Where?” “Right there!”
Oleg is a skinhead. It all started when, aged eight, he witnessed the murder of a friend: teenagers from the Caucasus killed him to get hold of his telephone. At fourteen, Oleg organized a “fight club,” in which he was the youngest member. The fighters “staged flash mobs at Caucasian markets.” Oleg said that in his small provincial town, the population was divided into skinheads, people from the Caucasus, and suckers. He was convicted of a gang killing. He expected to be rewarded for his patriotism, not punished. Oleg had kept up his spirits at the penitentiary: he had been studying foreign languages, philosophy, and economics. He dreams of becoming a politician: “Yanukovych’s priors hadn’t stopped him from becoming president.”
In the autumn, he was transferred to an adult prison.
Andrei: “On the outside, lots of things keep a guy from wising up.”
Andrei is a prison artist. He makes “bands” (drawings on handkerchiefs). He wants to draw beautifully and with feeling, but despises formal exercises. But he did like the lecture on concentration camp drawings. He reads Solzhenitsyn and has been teaching himself to draw by copying illustrations in books from the local library. Andrei’s sentence ended before the New Year, but no one is waiting for him on the outside.
A drawing by Andrei
Yevgeny had been a gambler. He was sent to the colony for busting open a slot machine. He did not know how to draw and did not want to learn: he came to class to get things off his chest.
Yevgeny: “I take out my anger on the world by drawing. Each drop is a grievance: it’s like rain.”
Yevgeny always looked tense. He hated his surroundings and once said he wanted to murder people.
“Shut up. You don’t know what murder is,” the skinhead Oleg said to Yevgeny, taking him down a peg.
Alexei: “On the outside, I drew cartoon characters.”
Alexei is a tall, handsome teenager. He is well read and has a good memory. What he liked most of all during the lessons was explanations of the abstract foundations of composition, which either irritated or dumfounded the other inmates.
A drawing by Alexei
It was obvious the other boys avoided Alexei, and one of them half-jokingly called him a maniac. It turned out that once on New Year’s Eve, Alexei had committed a double murder while intoxicated: he had stabbed one of his victims around fifty times with a knife. Before the New Year, Alexei was transferred to an adult prison in Tambov, while the skinheads were sent to a prison in the Moscow Region.
Natalia Dzyadko: “Why does no one come here to play football with the boys?”
Human rights activist Natalia Dzyadko has worked with the penitentiary for eight years. Along with staff members at the Center for Prison Reform, she brings candy and presents for the inmates’ birthdays, and invites people willing to work with the boys to the prison. It is difficult to gain entry to the prison without outside help. There are exceptions: the famous actor and musician Pyotr Mamonov has been granted the right to visit at any time, without a pass. True, he does not come that often, once or twice a year, but the inmates who have caught his concerts at the penitentiary still remember Mamonov.
The inmates have almost no time for themselves: their lives are organized on a strict schedule. But when they do have free time, what they like doing most of all is playing football.
Singer: “We’re fighting a plague, we’re fighting the entire Russian narcomafia.”
Activists sometimes visit the penitentiary, for example, a band made up of former alcoholics and drug addicts, from the organization Transfiguring Russia. The musicians performed for the boys songs they had written about the benefits of a healthy lifestyle.
The boys said the concert was cool, but that it was odd the musicians were wearing slippers and torn socks.
Father Andrei: “I’m going to sing you songs from the ‘80s.”
Father Andrei from Descent of the Holy Spirit Church also visited the inmates. The church is famous for its prior, ex-rocker Sergei Rybko. The priest performed several songs at a concert in the prison.
Father Andrei: “God definitely needs all of us.”
As in adult prisons, many inmates at the juvenile penitentiary turn to religion. There is a tiny wooden church on the premises. There are lots of icons in every residential unit, and even the TV in the common room is ringed with icons. Orthodox priests frequently come on the weekends to receive confession, chat, and show films about Russian Orthodoxy. No one comes to see the Muslim boys.
“They have put us up a crooked New Year’s tree with crooked decorations.”
As New Year’s approached, they were few boys left at the penitentiary. Some had been released, while others had been transferred to adult prisons.
Victoria Lomasko’s project Drawing Lessons at a Juvenile Prison is on display until February 9, 2015, at the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid as part of the group show Really Useful Knowledge.