FLORENCE — With paintbrushes and canvas in hand, a diverse group of 35 inmates in Arizona State Prison Complex-Florence’s South Unit meets once a week in the facility art room.

The South Unit Artists include some experienced artists and some beginners. Some prefer creating colorful landscapes with acrylic while others like to paint intricate portraits with instant coffee. But for the few hours they’re together, each of the inmates has the same goal: to release their inner artist and create art.

Painting or drawing relieves stress and it helps the long prison days pass quickly, said Janet Ellis, a corrections officer who oversees the art program as well as other classes in the facility.

Prison art show

Janet Ellis, a corrections officer, oversees the South Unit art show.

“Anything in prison that makes the time fly is good,” she said.

Wednesday, about 50 works of inmate art went on display in the South Unit visitor room. Among the artworks were black-and-white images drawn in pencil, a collection of portraits painted with coffee as well as colorful caricatures and landscapes, including one that featured rocks with faces and talking cactuses. Vibrant fantasy scenes, animal portraits and detailed inkdot designs were also among the artwork on display.

The range of artwork and media chosen reflect the diversity of the group, Ellis said.

Ellis sent invitations to state workers, community leaders and others, asking them to visit the unit and see the artwork.

“It’s such beautiful art it needs to be displayed and shown off,” she said. “We’ve had a pretty good turnout.”

Visitors to the art show judged the entries, picking first-, second- and third-place favorites. Winners will receive ribbons.

“The inmates really enjoy having their work displayed,” Ellis said.

The artwork will remain on display for a few days so that families may view the work. All 50 pieces will then be donated to “Inkarcerated, Creativity within Confinement,” an art show in Phoenix hosted by Arizona State University students.

Inkarcerated raises awareness about the effectiveness of programming in prisons. The inmate artwork will be sold with proceeds donated to Children First Leadership Academy and Pinal County Family Advocacy Center.

Ellis said that seeing inmate art can change people’s perspective of life inside prison walls.

“When people think of the incarcerated they think of people sitting around idle,” Ellis said. “But they’re very busy when they’re here. Art is just one of the programs they can get involved with.”

Prison art show

Gourd art, on display during an art show at South Unit.

The beginning art program teaches new artists techniques that enable them to express themselves through creativity. The advanced program allows those with some skill the chance to move to the next level.

“Some may have dabbled in art before coming into the program,” Ellis said.

She said most spend hours working on projects.

An inkdot design in the show took more than 90 hours to complete, according to Ellis.

The inmates often collaborate with experienced artists helping beginners.

Most use acrylic, including one who waters down the acrylic to create a watercolor effect, but some chose to create images with chalk, pencil, graphite or oil.

The artists pay for their own materials.

Creating art has the power to transform lives, Ellis said.

Prison art show

The artwork in the show represents a range of skill levels, from beginner to advanced.

“It gives them a sense of purpose and a sense of accomplishment,” she said. “One of our artists enters his work in the state fair every year and has won blue ribbons. Others send their artwork to family members to sell.”

Donating their artwork to ASU’s Inkarcerated art show gives the inmates a chance to contribute to society, as the works are sold and the money benefiting charities or restorative justice programs.

“Their art becomes a way to give back to society,” Ellis said.

The Inkarcerated Creativity within Confinement show is open to the public and free to attend. It is from 6 to 10 p.m. Friday, May 5, at the Unexpected Art Gallery, 734 W. Polk St., Phoenix.

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