Bo Bartlett’s jail art program attempts to draw out best in local inmates

Inside the Muscogee County jail there’s a weekly lesson that offers a handful of inmates hope for a better day.

Artist, filmmaker, teacher and activist Bo Bartlett goes into the jail twice a month to teach art and art history to a group of inmates.

The goal of the program is re-entry when they are released, jail Chaplain Neil Richardson said.

“If you start touching the soul of a person and awaken that, you open hope, most people can come up with something better to do than come back to this place,” Richardson said.

The weekly program started in February when Sheriff Donna Tompkins and Richardson invited Bartlett into the jail. Bartlett and Christofer Gass, who works as an archivist for Columbus State University’s Bo Bartlett Center, go into the jail every other week to work with the inmates.

The program offers artistic freedom in a place where freedom is in short supply.

“You can draw anything you want in here,” Bartlett tells the class. “You have total freedom in here.”

The program, called Art in Jail, teaches the history of art and, as Bartlett calls it, “the soul work that it takes to be involved in the arts.”

There are five inmates, selected after submitting examples of their art work in the program at any time. If someone leaves the Muscogee County Jail, another inmate is brought into the program, Richardson said.

“The goal was to always have five in the program at any time so there is a personal touch with Bo and Chris,” Richardson said. “We then put the word out that we were looking for accomplished artists or people who wanted to advance their skills.”

At least two of those who are out of jail and have been at the art program are continuing their art education at the SafeHouse Ministries, which is run by Richardson. For almost three years, Bartlett has been doing a similar program for the homeless, through SafeHouse.

Emotional release is critical to the success of the jail program, Bartlett said.

“There is kind of a liberation that happens with them and it comes from getting in touch with yourself and your emotions,” Bartlett said.

Often, incarcerated people feel like that have to do the right thing, Bartlett said.

“In that case, they are suppressing some of the natural emotions they might be having,” Bartlett said. “They don’t have the freedom to express themselves, so they are repressing their emotions.”

The art program and what ends up on the paper or canvas is an opportunity for expression, Bartlett said.

“We are not analyzing what they are drawing,” he said. “We are saying, ‘Here, express yourself. Tell us a story. Tell us your story. Tell us about an emotional time in your life or something that gave you anger or sadness.’ By drawing their life story, they are able to get those emotions down on paper. ... By doing that it is a healthy avenue to express those emotions without hurting anyone.”

Chuck Williams: 706-571-8510, @chuckwilliams