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From Cell to Sell

'Christmas in Prison' Showcases Art Created by Inmates

By Jonathan Padget
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 25, 2004; Page C05

In a holiday shopping season filled with arts and crafts shows, what does it take to stand out from the pack? Try naming your event "Christmas in Prison."

That's the theme chosen by the Prisons Foundation for shows Saturday and Dec. 11 at First Trinity Lutheran Church in Judiciary Square. Paintings, drawings and craftwork submitted by prisoners throughout the country will be sold.

Proceeds will be split between the artists and the foundation, which promotes arts and education for prisoners and alternatives to incarceration.

"Christmas in Prison" follows the foundation's first prison arts and crafts show in September at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, which featured works by 85 artists and raised $5,000. The next two shows will showcase the work of 100 artists. The foundation hopes to eventually establish a permanent Prisons Gallery of Art in Washington.

"There is a need for people on the inside to be recognized for the art they create in prison," says Dennis Sobin, the foundation's executive director. "Art humanizes prisoners -- it encourages them to not give up."

Sobin, 61, a former inmate who spent "11 birthdays and 11 Christmases" behind bars, discussed the foundation's efforts on a recent weekend afternoon amid a flurry of activity in a cramped office near Union Station. Staff and volunteers juggled tasks, including the pressing need to label pieces with prices and whatever biographical information the artists choose to share when they submit their work.

Some of the artists include details about their criminal backgrounds; most emphasize their desires for the future -- to improve their education, to overcome their mistakes, to give something back to society. They are glimpses into lives behind a range of imagery, from religious and hyper-realistic to fantastical and abstract.

Raquel Montalvo, 34, who creates crocheted angel dolls at Danbury Federal Prison Camp in Connecticut, wrote: "I like to bring a little bit of hope to people. . . . I cannot turn back the hands of time to correct the mistake I made. I can only use this time to help heal through my work."

Sobin doesn't like to discuss the circumstances that led to his prison sentence. (A former pornography entrepreneur and libertarian activist, he ran for public office in Washington multiple times in the 1980s. In 1992, a Florida court sentenced Sobin to 12 years for racketeering and child pornography; he disputes the charges. A year later he was convicted of bankruptcy fraud in federal court.)

Sobin explains that music was his creative outlet in prison: "It calmed me." He learned how to read music while incarcerated and eventually taught music to his fellow inmates. Access to arts resources, however, varies widely in correctional facilities.

The foundation finds that many formal arts programs have been lost in budget cuts. Classes and materials in some prisons exist -- if at all -- only because of outside volunteer efforts.

The foundation doesn't distribute arts materials itself, but hopes to facilitate donations by arts-related companies.

"We see art done on the backs of envelopes with pencils," says Omar Bandar, the foundation's arts director, "because that's all some prisoners can get their hands on."

Bandar, 26, also knows about prison life firsthand, having served 11 months as a teenager. Without creative outlets, he says, "You see individuals just sitting there, festering, instead of getting the self-esteem benefits of creating something."

The foundation's primary challenge, Bandar adds, is convincing people in power that arts make a difference as a rehabilitation tool. He finds that the arts and crafts show format is proving to be an effective way to raise public awareness and reinforce that message.

"While you're admiring the art, you may become open to other issues," says Bandar, although he points out that, bigger issues aside, the art itself can pack a powerful punch.

"You're looking at the work of individuals who are in an incredibly stressful period in their lives. To see the way that emotion is captured -- it's pretty interesting."

Christmas in Prison is at First Trinity Lutheran Church, 309 E St. NW. Saturday and Dec. 11, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Call 202-393-1511 or visit www.prisonsfoundation.org.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company