MIA CHOUMENKOVITCH is not afraid. "People ask me what I do," says the Washington art instructor. "When I tell them I teach art at Lorton Reformatory, they all ask me if I'm afraid."
The only fear Choumenkovitch recognizes is the fear she sees in her students. "They're afraid to try something new," she says, "since they're afraid of failing."
Her students draw upon one another's ideas in evolving their own artistic styles, so much so that Choumenkovitch sees her students' work as a distinct genre. She points out that "much of the work they've done on their own is copied from photos, ranging from Ebony to art books, from the Mona Lisa to ads for soap."
Still, this "genre" expresses what Choumenkovitch sees as "layers and layers of anger and loneliness." At the same time, she says that some of the men's work is "so beautiful and fine that it's hard to believe it's from a prison." At exhibitions Choumenkovitch has staged, many viewers have been "astonished at the college-level standard of the men's work," according to their teacher.
Choumenkovitch encourages her students to move beyond their limited perspective. For a long while, she tried to get her students in the maximum-security unit to use the view of the catwalk from their cells as a subject. Finally, one man did, but the others teased him, saying, 'Man, you better not bring that home, you'll be saying, it's count time, it's count time.' "
Choumenkovitch drives out to Lorton nearly every weekday. In the seven years she has worked there, she has seen many men leave the youth center at the facility only to return to maximum security several months or years later. "I see them," she says, shaking her head, "and say, 'Oh my God, it's not you.' "
Choumenkovitch stands by the classroom door, greeting each of her students by name as they come in, asking them how their other classes are going.
Arthur S. is one of the first to come in. He is 22 and has been in Lorton three years. He has some talent and knows it, proudly showing Choumenkovitch his self-portrait. He credits Choumenkovitch with teaching him "discipline," for "pushing" him. He dreams of opening his own show when he has enough canvases to "burst out." Arthur speaks of his own father's "reputation in Washington art circles," but says he didn't learn much from him since his father died when Arthur was 10 years old. Arthur's father also spent time in Lorton.
Johnny M. walks into the room toting a cartoon of three men drinking at a bar with a devil hovering above them. From the small rubber toy in front of him, he draws an enormous tiger-striped frog standing on green grass in front of brown, pink and orange tenement blocks. The other men all look up from their work when Choumenkovitch displays Johnny's picture in front of the classroom. One man dubs it "the frogman of the urban dwelling."
The longer she's there, the less Choumenkovitch says she knows. Although she gets an occasional phone call from an old student who has stayed out of trouble, she cannot always hope to rehabilitate her students. So she aims for another goal; instilling self-esteem. "In art class, you see the self-esteem in a man who has proved he can do something. Lack of self-respect is the main problem in the prison population, and also how they find their way into prison. Art requires a hell of a lot of patience and self-discipline. So I don't mind the discouragement. I go about it in a different way. You try this and that and stay with what works."
Choumenkovitch herself has often tried "this and that" in her own life, moving from being a serious art student in Europe to research at American University and now to teaching at Lorton. The daughter of a Yugoslav diplomat, Choumenkovitch was completely absorbed in her own art during her youth. But now she says, "So much of that has been taken out of me. It slowly faded away. I'm perfectly happy to turn everything I have to teaching at Lorton. What I have is better used there."
The Lorton art program is not a fashionable "cause." Choumenkovitch struggles constantly to raise enough money to keep the program going. But she doesn't regret the turn her life has taken. "There is nothing worse," Choumenkovitch says, "than piling up canvases and showing them and selling some of them and then piling up more canvases. Art is a very lonely occupation."