“An Open Window”: Animal Art in Prisons

Treacy Ziegler works with the “An Open Window” project, a partner of the Center For Transformative Action affiliated with Cornell University. She wrote us about her experience working with inmates in a high-security prison:

Albino opossum specimen
When I met with a class of men, inmates at a super-maximum security prison; men who all have life sentences, I told them that I wanted them to develop their ability “to see” through learning how to draw from “life.” Drawing from “life” is not drawing from photos or their imagination, but from the world around them. One inmate suggested that there was no “life” in prison to draw. I said that was the challenge, but that in fact there was “life” in prison; we just had to work harder to find it. I bring bird specimens to the prison. The specimen opens the window, so to speak, to the life that is so necessary to explore if we want to learn how we connect to a shared world.

Sketch by a prison inmate
It is the vision of this project that the prison community has the fullest and most complex experience of art. This full experience occurs when both viewers and artists are understood as equal participants in the creative and transformative power of art. When art is experienced as a partnership bringing both viewer and artist into a shared world through their feelings to that art, the dehumanizing nature of prison life, of inmates and prison staff alike, is lessened.

Crane Wife, by Treacy Ziegler, donated to the hospice unit of a prison

American Crow specimens
In this project I am asking and challenging the prison community to understand art in a way that is different than the way art has traditionally been understood and used in prisons. Art is not a tool for therapy; art is not a tool for rehabilitation. Art is “spiritual” in the sense that it cannot be put into tidy definitions and no one can dictate what or whom it will eventually influence. In contrast, prison is concrete walls, cells, routine, clear definitions where nothing is ambiguous; inmates are inmates; officers are officers.

Painting of crows by an inmate
When I first wrote to 22 prisons asking to exhibit my art within the prisons, my letter, like art, was ambiguous and my ideas abstract. This was intentional on my part. I knew I was not speaking in the language that the prison would understand. But I also knew that those prisons that responded favorably to my letter were willing to take risks into unknown territory. This, in itself, is a major change for these institutions that do not want surprises, unknowns and ambiguity. However, it is my belief that institutions that cannot absorb surprises, unknowns, and ambiguity cannot serve the living. It is the nature of living to be ambiguous. It is the goal of this project to help both institution and individuals in this institution to venture further into the ambiguity of art.

Crane painting donated by Treacy Ziegler to a prison.
I donated 47 large paintings to another prison, many of which are bird paintings from studies I did of the Cornell Museum of Vertebrates specimens at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. I am exploring how these paintings affect the experience of being at the prison. Maybe not all so rosy: one inmate wasn’t sure he “wanted to wake up every day looking at these paintings, but concluded that they were better than nothing, and then elaborated how “every time he looked at the paintings, he saw something different,” which made me conclude that the paintings, while not his “favorite thing,” demanded that he see things differently.

The birds that interest me are those birds who are bound to earth and haunted by the sky. I paint the large birds, the bird whose size suggests flight is a burden. I think in addition to my interest in flightless birds, I am interested in space but more specifically, our experience of space; both confined space and that space we refer to as, if not limitless, then ambiguous.

Pale Night, donated by Treacy Ziegler.

Quail specimen
Art is not me “looking” at the world, but me engaging in the world. I tell the men if they were “drawing” a picture of their family from “life”, they would notice things. One time I gave the example, “There is Aunt Sadie, the only person who thought you were any good, and now you are looking at her and you notice she is dying. You will draw her differently than how the camera will take a photo of her. The camera does not care about Aunt Sadie. The camera does not make the difference between Aunt Sadie and the chair she is sitting on.”

Quail sketch by an inmate
But then the men told me, “Yeah, but I can look at the picture of Aunt Sadie and feel the same thing.” And I said, “what you can’t get from the photo is how Aunt Sadie looks back at you when she notices that you notice that she is dying.” Art is not about one seeing the world, but how one sees the world looking back.

Quail painting by an inmate
The moment you see the world looking back is when experience happens; that is when life takes place. The artist who spends a lot of time drawing from “life” understands this cord between themselves and everything in the world. After looking at a “stuffed bird” long enough there begins to feel like there is an invisible cord between you and that bird so that when you move, it will also move … it is an uncanny feeling.

Skull painting by a prison inmate
When I go up to the Museum of Vertebrates at Cornell, I sit there and wait until one of those inanimate birds “speaks” to me.