Mia Choumenkovitch's house is filled with the art work of her students. She points to one painting and says of the artist, "This one is terribly lonely which reflects in his art. He's serving 40 years for murder and is a very complex man." The artist had drawn a face but left out the eyes.
She points to another, a bright dragon, signed "To Mia with Love."
"This one has a big drug problem. He's tiny and full of pimples. Tiny and very sweet. Gambino is his street name," she says with a trace of a slavic accent.
Four days a week, the petite 45-year-old blond Choumenkovitch makes her way through chainlink fences and past secruity guards on her way to her students at Lorton Reformatory.
"How ya doing Miss Mia?" one prisoner calls out. Another offers to carry her bag, a large blue satchel filled with old instant coffee jars, shells, driftwood and plants that she uses in her classes.
As she enters the classroom in the Youth Security Center, prisoners are putting planks on sawhorses to serve as tables. The classroom is a large, bare recreation hall where class members stand because there are no chairs.
Choumenkovitch is the first art teacher at Lorton. Her classes are popular and serve as a refuge from the monotony of prison life. Almost daily there are requests for new admissions.
"These men have a lot of energy and need an emotional outlet. It (the program) builds up their self-image and gives them a better attitude about themselves. It is therapy for them," says Choumenkovitch.
Kerwood Corbin, a resident of the Maximum Security Center, said "It gives me a chance to sit down and do something constructive. It's relaxing and takes your mind away from your troubles. I didn't think I had any creativity until Mia."
Choumenkovitch conducts the program against a backdrop of financial uncertainties and inadequate facilities and supplies. Since 1975, the program, which has involved more than 600 men, has been supported by grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and private donations. In the next fiscal year, the NEA funds will dry up. She is seeking support from other foundations and individuals to keep it going.
For now, the classes go on as they have for the past four years -- lively and informal. The residents draw and paint whatever they like. Some try to copy from the art books she supplies, but she discourages this.
She use the classes to show the prisoners that they have choices.
"The minimum we take for granted, they don't even know exists. Two plus two equals four. But there are many ways to make four. That, to them, is a good lesson. You either fail or you make it. But there are many ways to make it. I think they begin to understand," she said.
She tells her students, "You have to develop your imagination, stretch out and try."
Choumenkovitch said that the classes stretch her own imagination, especially when they have to be conducted in windowless rooms. The most elementary lessons in art pose enormous problems.
For example, in the maximum security facility, where she began teaching this year, the residents are learning about perspective. Hallways are used as models, but the bars interfere with the flow of the lines.
"We do what we can with what we have," she said.
Choumenkovitch, who was among the first group of women allowed to work in the prison, started the program on a volunteer basis and it grew. She is now paid for her work.
"Prison art came unexpectedly. It just happened. I was interested in social issues and had my training in art.
"During the course of the six-month volunteer period, I realized how good it is. A lot of encouragement came from the residents.
"I'm not there for all the reasons people go to prisons -- for sacrifice or danger. It is out of my life. I think teaching is teaching."
The daughter of a Yugoslavian ambassador, Choumenkovitch immigrated to the United States after spending most of her early life in Europe. Before she began teaching at Lorton, she spent two years studying African art on the Ivory Coast. She has also worked with inner city art programs in the District.
Choumenkovitch plays a number of roles in the prisoners' lives. "I think I am between a friend and mother, and possibly something in their fantasies. They want me to be a certain way. They don't even want me to say 'damn.'"
Some of the men call her after their release to ask for help getting jobs. "Some call if they have problems. If they don't call, they don't need help or they're back at Lorton."
Joseph Jenkins, a resident of the maximum security unit, said, "We want this program. We want art. I've learned a lot, even if it's just learning to mix two colors."
Despite financial instability and a wary public, she has definite hopes for the future of the program. She is presently arranging for an exhibit at the Corcoran Art Gallery. Even if their works are accepted, however, the prisoners may have to wait as long as two years for a showing.
"There is strong prejudice from the outside. People have strong feelings about punishment. They feel the prisoners should learn to be welders and their imprisonment should be made tough and hard, but I feel there is a finer part of every human being and I feel I bring this out in my classes."