It was almost normal, meeting with a couple of soft-spoken artists in ash sweat shirts in an austere room tastefully decorated with Byzantine religious icons and prints of works by Van Gogh and Kandinsky.
Except that this was the visiting room at Maryland's Western Correctional Institution in Cumberland, and the artists were inmates, one of whom was serving a life sentence for murder.
A few miles away, their work was going on display at the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services' inmate art exhibit, the first of its kind in the state. The exhibit opened Thursday night in Allegany College's George Hazen Gallery after showings in Baltimore and on the Eastern Shore that raised more than $4,000 for crime victims.
The two Cumberland inmates -- James Harrison, in his 26th year of prison, and Robert Amgeet, who has served seven of 25 years for receiving stolen guns -- would not be there to see their work. They remained locked up down the road. But the art represented a sort of freedom for them.
"There's a lot of tension in prison. Constantly. We can't escape from that reality, but it's a momentary release, and it expresses where we are," said Harrison, 54, a Baltimore native. He submitted portraits of a red-cloaked Masai man and woman, as well as "Save the Children," a profile of a dejected boy in threadbare overalls, sitting on a bench labeled "T.N.T." The painting sold for $150.
Amgeet, 27, a native of Newark, submitted "A Way to Unite," a painting of the World Trade Center with a plane heading toward it. Below, white, black and Asian faces watch, crying. In the sky, Amgeet wrote the message, "One day, the world found a way to unite . . . & on that day, the world wept together."
At the exhibit, a few dozen visitors walked slowly through the gallery, looking at 62 paintings and drawings culled from more than 350 submissions. Many depicted improbably bucolic scenes, with such titles as "Running Brook," "Winter's Glow," "Calm and Quietness" and "Home on the Farm." Most had been sold at previous exhibitions for prices ranging from $25 to $1,100, the cost of the exhibit's striking lead art, a blue-filtered portrait of a young black girl titled "These Eyes."
Harrison said he had little exposure to art before he began working on murals at the prison.
"I just practiced, word of mouth, tips from this person and that," he recalled.
Although Harrison and Amgeet were given art materials for the exhibit, they said they normally have to exercise their ingenuity. Oil paints are not allowed because they are toxic. So prisoners use watercolors, acrylics and pastels when they are available in the commissary, or regular and colored pencils. In a pinch, they said, they scrape the ink off magazine pages or use soap, mixing it with water or shampoo. Harrison said he once made a painting using the dye from carbon paper. For canvas, prison artists often take a sheet from the laundry and stretch it over an empty cardboard box.
Amgeet, who will be up for parole in 2008 -- he wants to open an art business when he gets out -- said the inmates were not allowed to submit art with controversial themes, such as his drawings of prison fights and guards dragging inmates into lockup. He pulled out his book, a collection of folded pages, and turned to a pencil drawing surrounded by dense text written in small capital letters. The picture was of a man shooting heroin; the man, Amgeet said, was his father.
"He was like the junkie around my neighborhood, and everyone knew he was my father," Amgeet said bitterly.
Amgeet would have liked to have presented those topics in the exhibit, which, though it has some melancholy works, is devoid of darker depictions of drugs and violence.
"They'd rather not discuss it. They'd rather not see it," Amgeet said. "They want to get dressed up, go to an art gallery."
As art, though, the works received a favorable reception from visitors, most of whom were dressed casually. Lawrence D. Weisgal, an artist who served seven years in a Maryland prison for armed robbery and who was on the jury that picked the 62 works of art, thought Harrison's work was excellent.
"This guy's good," he said, gesturing to "Save the Children." "The expressions are great."
Mark Vernarelli, a spokesman for the corrections department, stressed the benefits the money would provide to victim services but said he also hoped the exhibit would give inmates an outlet for their energy and help them develop job skills.
"If it teaches inmates, if it makes them employable when they get out, that's good," Vernarelli said, noting that 51 percent of Maryland inmates return to prison within three years of their release.
Weisgal was confident it would work, at least for some. Like Harrison, he had known little about art when he entered prison but found that he could spend hours focusing on a single point or line, learning techniques from other inmate artists. He said it helped him survive prison and turned him away from crime.
"You know what, I'm going to draw my way out of this prison," he remembered thinking. "And I did."