On art, prison, and wild style

UND Writer’s Conference, the 50th Year, March 2019

Notes from my journal: Heid Erdrich gave an incredibly adept reading of her work. I could have listened all day. Hearing her read her work also helped me read it, as it uses creative formatting. Favorite quote: “Nostalgia is a trap and a good place to start.” Sarah Smarsh said “Place as geography, an anchor. Land as commodity, immigrants as its workers….A false promise.” I experienced a deep sense of identification with her. It made me uncomfortable, a little triggered, even as I admired her intellect and command of language. The Friday Public Reading: A poem called Mother Goddess’ Lament – “Man has never been the savior of man, earth can no longer be the savior of man….I can do nothing for him.” Sally Wen Mao’s offered such humor and delicious sarcasm. Tommy Orange was brilliant and sweet and passionate about writing. The kickass political analysis of Kiese Laymon inspired. I had to leave early because Mother was unwell and calling for us, so I missed his reading — a big regret —but bought his book Heavy and am anticipating a wild ride. For me, visual artist Patrick Martinez was the highlight of the conference. The urban feel, technical execution, and social conscience of the work were only surpassed by the painterly use color and texture. Memorials to the dead are universal and Patrick made it fresh. He is trained and talented, his classroom dialogue was fun and the students fully engaged. Patrick began as a tagger, a poor kid in a tough LA neighborhood. He reminded me of my friend Knockturnal and he was interested and encouraging when I spoke of the imprisoned artist, tag name Knockturnal, who I met serendipitously a couple of years ago.


I encountered Knockturnal while touring the James River Correctional Facility in Jamestown. I was representing the FM and ND Coalitions for Homeless People at an interim legislative committee hearing that then-Rep. Kathy Hogan was leading on mental health needs in North Dakota. The halls at James River are bare, tired surfaces. No color or visual distraction of any kind. Low “stim” encourages studying the lines of things, intersections, angles, light and shadow — and this has its own merits. As if we are IN the crystal looking out.

Walking the hall I saw one large sheet of paper taped to one wall; a colored pencil rendering of an word in bubble script. What word? Were they up for one day only? My heart is burning.

K. is imprisoned for attempted murder or aggravated assault or something in that category. I’ve never read his case. I made it a point of not reading about his case. He ended up being one of the two men who spoke with our tour group in a gymnasium that seemed taller than it was wide. At the other end of the room a small group of inmates worked with two dogs in training as service animals.

K. is a physically beautiful young man with uncut hair and sad eyes. Sisseton Wahpeton Band, he grew up on the Spirit Lake Reservation (Devils Lake to me — my home region). He was living at James River as part of a pilot project initiated by the warden; an experiment to reduce prisoner time in segregation. At that point, K. had been incarcerated for several years and spent most of his time in segregation (isolated in a cell for 23 of every 24 hours). The project put selected men in a pod together and increased social interaction with connecting activities like playing cards, talking, drawing and using music for mood management. Communication with guards and others was relaxed, even informal, much of the time. Mental health evaluations were part of the process and for K. One outcome was medication for his previously undiagnosed or treated schizophrenia.

Schizophrenia is a scourge among men in his age group — why? Cultural? Environment-based?The staff told us that the outcomes of this experiment in human connection were entirely positive, at least in terms of the compliance measures used. But, I think there were lots of other positive results. Connection is the most basic of human needs, after all. I can wax sarcastic and ironic about this social experiment – caring as a compliance strategy – but if it changes the way human beings are treated in prisons and jails than I’m equally full of sincere praise for the initiators and the funders.

There is no discernible fresh air in the gym of the prison. And I must ask how wellness can occur without the prana of nature: our mother, the earth, our grandfather, the sun? Little natural light, overly processed food for every meal, sips of fresh air on a one in 24 hour schedule if you’re lucky and you don’t piss anyone off. I can get pretty worked up about the treatment of people in prisons, about the injustice and folly of for-profit incarceration, outraged even.

The second thing I noticed about K. was his MP3 player and earbuds. Later he told me that music provided his best mood management tool so far, along with drawing. I wonder how many good days he has to have to get access to his supplies? Or if they are always available to him? No, it’s prison. Nothing is always available.

That day we had two short conversations: He’s always drawn. His graffiti art is self-taught, learned on the streets of New York City, mostly. He’s been around. A young brown man moving from a harsh past to a harsher present. Drawing is solace, expression, meditation, peace. I can’t tell how he feels about the diagnosis and medication or the reasons that he is incarcerated. In our only long interview we were closely supervised. In his place, I certainly wouldn’t have said anything revealing, either.

I traveled to Bismarck to interview him about his work. Our conversation took place in another bare room at the ND State Penitentiary. He’d returned there after completing the James River program. It took some serious arranging to get that visit. An officer, not a regular CO, sat with us. K. shared a little of his story. We looked at his art and talked about the art form. I had him sign them all. They are already named. I love them even though I am deeply ignorant about the form. Or maybe because I am—street art is an undiscovered country to me.

There was a little bit of money from a Plains Art Museum/Consensus Council grant and I bought 15 matching black frames and a pile of mat board and had an intern with skills do the mounting. They live in my study next to my writing desk. They are also being exhibited at APT, the Arts Partnership’s cohab building in Fargo and looking for other homes.

Knockturnal (2016) Sinister colored pencil on paper

K. and I have exchanged a couple of letter and he sent me a second batch of drawings. I wish he had access to a teacher, paint, brushes, or maybe oil pastels. I hope to have another interview soon. My own recent experiences woke me to what I can do about the brokenness. Please look around you. What can you help to repair? There is brokenness everywhere and beauty too.

In the moment, Ajeet Kaur is singing Guru Ram Das Guru in my ears. Wah Hey Guru.

I hope I live to see K. as a free man embracing a destiny. I hope to see him creating and serving the people. So I pray that infinity of solution is invoked for him and already implementing his highest good and his free will.

I don’t know the big answers. But I remember Iain De Jong talking about turning the ship of homelessness: Do what you can. Use your fire and your heart and your intellect/entelechy. Call in the unseen helpers. Or as Yogi Bhajan said, “When Time is on you Start and the pressure will be off.”

For writing practice using Wild Style (a street art style) as the prompt, I wrote:
Wild Style Paint slapped, sprayed, seared on concrete, steel, plastic, this urban message service, these wild songs of rebellion and freedom marching across the empty middle, rolling through tiny towns. Message unreceived, misunderstood, message rejected. But the colors, the boggling spaces imprint anyway, become with time beautiful, ephemeral, artistic even to eyes ignorant of the message and immune to the wild expression of taste and style from the decadent coats (surely the origin of all that coded language and misspelling). All the normal middle shaking in their bootstrapped boots and chugging another beer to avoid the ways they, too, are wild and wrong and deeply different.

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