"Sometimes we get an idea that these are just horrible people, they should all be locked up, they should never get out of prison, and at the same time they have wonderful talents, they're very intelligent," said Cynthia Kobel, board member at the John Howard Association of Illinois, a watchdog group for Illinois prison.
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"And once they get in prison, many of the men take time for first time to… become really quite intellectual," she said.
"I do my art just about every day because… it gets me away from this place and makes me feel better," said Cornelius Ames, a Stateville prisoner.
"He's right," said fellow inmate Charles McLaurin. "It's basically a form of escapism that you have to do on a daily basis to keep from dwelling on the reality of this existence."
Ames and McLaurin's artwork will join around 50 other Illinois state prisoners' art at 'Light from Inside: Art from Illinois Prisons,' an exhibit sponsored by the John Howard Association of Illinois.
Pontiac, Menard, Hill, Dwight, Pinckneyville, Western Illinois, Lawrence and Tamms Correctional Centers will all be represented at the exhibit.
The artwork will be on display at the Chicago Cultural Center from Aug. 11 to Sept. 28. A reception will be held Aug. 18, and tickets are $30 at the door and $25 beforehand through the John Howard Association.
"It's something that is giving people an idea of what men in prison do-- not just when they're sitting around-- to give a different point of view of the prisoner and to have more of an idea of the type of person in prisons," said Kobel.
Through the years, art programs have been cut, and most Illinois state prisons no longer have them.
Prisoners mainly work in their cells. They are self-taught and assist one another when they can.
"We share ideas of how to develop the technique or how to mix the paints, make the flesh tones and hues and shadows and all that. So we… teach ourselves, and we share the best we can with each other," said David Miranda, prisoner. "Some these guys are very, very skillful and they got good generous hearts and they share."
At Tamms, a supermax prison in southern Illinois, men are kept in solidarity.
Kobel regularly visits Tamms prisoners as part of her work at the John Howard Association.
Prisoners at Tamms aren't allowed art supplies. They draw with flexible pens and use various methods to get color.
"They find ways to make color out of food and sometimes rubbing newspaper or magazines in order to get color coming out of that," said Kobel. "So they really work at trying to do in fact wonderful art.
At Stateville, on the other hand, prisoners are allowed art supplies, but they have become very difficult to get.
Hector Maisonet at Stateville used oil paints an inmate hadn't been using and gave to him, an old paintbrush, a canvas and cardboard to create his work.
"My mom told me, 'Why paint about prison? Why don't you paint something beautiful?' And so, this is what I came up with," said Maisonet as he proudly held up his still life's of birds, children and butterflies.
Used to painting darker images, Maisonet said, "This is the first time I ever painted stuff like this."
"I got two years… to go to go home, and I got a lot of years in. You know, I wanna leave something more positive behind, and I'm sincere about that," said Maisonet. He hopes to open a small art studio when he's released.
"I know I've had one chance, I've had two chances, I've had three chances, but I'm a lot older, a lot wiser... I had a lot bumps bruises but I've become a lot stronger," he said.
Maisonet and many other prisoners expressed that they hope that the exhibit shows they are capable of change.
"This will show that we're not subhuman creatures, that we are able not only to give back to society, but be at the same time role models to the younger people to not come to these prisons, but when you're down and out, you can still get back up to fight again for another day for the betterment of humanity," said prisoner Robert Ornelas.
Others hope the exhibit will help to reopen art programs at the prisons.
"Maybe they're open a door so society can see that we have potential to do positive things with our time," Miranda said.
Cornelius Ames says his artwork is an avenue to a new future. He makes three-dimensional objects with very few materials.
"I'm not just someone who did commit a crime, but who's trying to do better with himself," said Ames. "Because I am a changed person. I'm trying to do better… and I do have a mind and it works real good, and I can be an architect-- I can be whatever I wanna be and that's what I show in my art."
Prisoner William Jones said his artwork is merely a form of survival.
"This is not an accomplishment, per se-- this is survival. I survived going through a lot of hardship and a lot of troubled times to get to this plateau," he said. "So don't look at my work as a major accomplishment, just look at my work as something somebody done to survive in this word. And thank the Lord that he had the opportunity to do it."