Interview with Isaac Scott, Resident Artist and Justice in Education Scholar at Columbia’s Center for Justice
Isaac Scott is a self-taught graphic designer and fine artist, as well as a creative writer, currently the Resident Artist and Justice in Education Scholar at Columbia University’s Center for Justice. He is Co-Founder of Opportunities and Change, which facilitates solution-driven projects, such as The Confined Arts, Love Thyself First and T.e.a.m. Arts, and is Director of The Confined Arts Program as well as a lead research assistant in the Social Relations Lab at Columbia.
As it stands today, The Confined Arts is a platform for currently and formerly incarcerated artists to show their work. The platform is also open to those artists who work in and around the prison system who may not have been in prison themselves but are activists who are dedicated to the end of this crisis. Also, and perhaps more importantly, it is a platform for those artists who have been directly impacted by mass incarceration, perhaps with a family member who was/is incarcerated.
Before I came to Columbia, this project was simply random exhibitions. It was exhibitions with collections of art shown from different artists, others and myself. But, when I got here, under the leadership of Professor Geraldine Downey and some of the other people I work with at the Center for Justice, I’ve learned about how this should be a program and how I can develop it more. So, today, that’s where I am going and how I got our goals into place.
So, first, we provide opportunities for artists coming home from prison and also for those artists who are still in prison now – opportunities to cultivate their skills or learn creative form of expression that can be beneficial to them in there and outside.
Second, one of the main things we want to do through our art is to change the narrative and tell the correct story. You don’t know as much about prison as you think you do. Plus, what you heard, at least for most people, is probably from someone who has not been in prison themselves. The story is never told correctly. Through the arts, we want to give artists the opportunity to tell their own story.
For example, I’m an artist and when I came home, I knew it would be hard to get into galleries and make it as an artist. Yet, I was able to use my art to impact lives and provide opportunities for myself. While I may not make a lot of money for the paintings I actually do, I’ve found ways to do meaningful work around my paintings, such as taking a painting and doing a workshop around its visual connotations – I would get paid for that. I hope to train other artists on how to use their work in a similar fashion. That’s what I mean: teaching about how to use your craft as an entrepreneur to make ends meet. For the people I’m working with, we know that art is their passion and we understand it’s worth all the time we put into working with them on this.
What does it mean to be a “solution driven project”?
There are a number of things we want to do with the arts but in terms of core goals what we want to do as a program is to address first the inhumane narrative that is commonly associated with people with a criminal history. Secondly, there is a lack of opportunities for incarcerated people in certain fields, particularly for men and women who are not looking at their craft/art as valuable enough to provide them a job in that area.
We work to change the narrative by providing a stream of education to the public via exhibitions, discussions and events.
You may have friends who have no connection to prison; the stories they hear are different than the stories someone would hear from someone who has family or friends who have been in prison. That means a lot because when you two go into the voters’ booth because the story you’ve heard makes a difference in whether you choose this candidate who is for reform of the criminal justice system or that one who is not.
The other thing we provide is entrepreneurial opportunities for people to develop their craft. This means overcoming the problems that people coming home may face in seeing opportunities in their craft. You have to see your craft as valuable enough to get a job in that area, which is particularly hard for those who have been in prison say for 20-30 years and art is what they’ve been practicing for decades and then they have to find their way going outside to the world and back home.
Next I think is to create awareness on the policy level with the art – AKA legislative art. This means artists actually making art and taking it to doorsteps of legislators. I want us to utilize our crafts as a way to creatively get a message across to people, using it creatively and directly in the policy world. The idea here still has to be developed.
How did you become interested in using fine art as a profession? You mentioned your personal experience as an artist who was introduced to the arts inside of prison, saying in your writing “since my release I have used my creativity as an artist to shatter the stigma associated with my own incarceration.”
My bunkie (that’d be, a cellmate) was a good drawer who would draw on envelopes. He would draw all sorts of sketches and things and on envelopes so it is something you can send home to people. You see, we are thinking in systems that have been in place for years and that are somewhat out of place. In prison, there are no smart phones; there is still dial tone. It’s a big deal to draw on envelopes and include art when you send a letter home to family. My bunkie would do it and it was boring to him. He’d just be like, “you can have them.” I was like woah! That moment stuck with me.
Then later I was in another prison and I started doing it on my own. I went from envelopes to doing it on paper, making greeting cards, and then it became a business for me. I didn’t have people providing me money from the outside so this helped me. People got to know me for my art and they would come to me for greeting cards: “I need a birthday card for my daughter.” Or, I’d hear, “my wife loved that card, she left me money because of it.” Just to see the power of the arts to change lives!
I was there for almost 8 years, day to day living, I took care of myself with this work I was doing. At that point I understood that I could use this gift when I got home. That thinking was accurate in some ways but also inaccurate. Outside, it’s a way bigger world and it doesn’t work out the same but so far it has worked out and way better.
Who inspires you? What are some of your biggest influences, intellectually and professionally?
Intellectually, Pastor T.D. Jakes – surprise, right? I like him a lot. He is a believer in God and he is very smart. He is honest and he is real. I can’t stand people that act as if we don’t live in all the stuff we live in. Don’t tell me how to be as if I don’t have to live in this environment around this stuff and be subject to it… that sets me up to fail. Teach me how to live in this environment the way I should. I admire T.D. Jakes’ teachings.
I am inspired by creativity, period. Some of the artists I work with for example. I am so inspired by them – they are good! It’s to the point where I am insecure about my work, and it makes me want to step it up.
One artist, Guy Woodard, (AKA Guy the Artist, who I work with at Opportunities and Change) uses ballpoint pen and he is working so much and all the time that his hand is kind of deformed now. His work is amazing, and it’s all ballpoint pen! Stuff like that inspires me, just that he does what he does. He can do sit and dedicate all his time to creating works of art. You can build a classroom around one of his drawings and what one of them depicts.
Professor Downey inspires me. She is so good with people! And, you would never imagine what all she has lived through and overcome by looking at her and then you hear her story and her work in the prison system since the 80s. Seeing the way she works with people, connecting with them as individuals, is amazing. I long to be able to work with people the way she does.
It’s hard in classes here. She comes and checks in on a few of us and sits with us, asking how things are going and gets to know us personally, asking how my family is, for example. This is so important not just in my line of work as an artist but also as an advocate, in social justice work. I need to know how to work with people, especially those that are difficult. I need to be able to talk with people from all different paths and get good understanding of where people are coming from who are on other side of an issue, you know. She is one of the biggest people who inspire me in this regard.
What projects or research are you working on now?
At the social relations lab, under Professor Downey, we are conducting research on employment-seeking experiences of formerly incarcerated individuals. We are now starting to analyze some of the data. We are looking at the affects of the conviction question on an employment application. How does checking a box that you have been convicted affect a person, in terms of sensitivity to rejection and how concerned about that they are?
Participants share their insecurities with us, in written and verbal format, and we try to understand the individual sensitivity around this and consider how sensitive a person might be in certain regard as a result of being in prison. Sometimes for formerly incarcerated people you feel like it’s written on your forehead. We believe that everyone knows that we’ve been in such a different place. We’re trying to understand how people handle this and we measure the affects by asking about certain scenarios. Some are around employment and also rejection in social situation, say from a girl not talking with you at a friend’s party – we try to learn how concerned you may be that someone is not talking to you because s/he may know you have been in prison.
Also I’m teaching in prison, for the Rikers Education Program with the Center for Justice. I’ve done the first iteration of graphic interventions and soon will be teaching this outside prisons as well, for court involved youth. We want to work with those youth, get them at early stages of connecting to criminal justice department; it’s what they call a “redirection” program.
What challenges do you face in bringing arts into prisons, or bringing arts and incarceration issues outside of jails and prisons?
Two biggest challenges are funding and security clearances. It goes back to the systems that are in place that are outdated and make it a longer process for you just to get in and get stuff out of prisons. Also, in NY State, inmates cannot make their own money. I cannot solicit to artists in prison that I can sell their art for them. This is just an example of all these things in place that hold back the process. It’s personally frustrating because 8 out of 10 reasons you cannot help men and women in the prisons is for security – you are not allowed to bring things in, even if those things can save the life of another.
The systems, rules and regulations that have been in place for decades take precedent and they’re distracting and unhelpful. Current rise in criminal justice reform doesn’t mean that all want it. One thing we need to overcome is the ‘them versus us’ for the security guards and inmates in prisons and also for those who are in prisons or out of them. There has been progress in this regard recently; guards being encouraged to build relationships with inmates, rather than see them as “them.” I mean the guards are basically living in prisons too – they just don’t sleep there.
There are ways to circumvent these things and change mentalities and this is where we have come in as activists. We find ways to go around the rules and they have to let us in. Thing is, we are not going anywhere and once they realize that, there’s a shift in which you see it’s better to work with us. This is what we are seeing a lot more of.
Learn more about Isaac Scott: http://www.isaacsquarterly.com/ and, for more info on The Center for Justice: http://centerforjustice.columbia.edu. To find out info on future events by The Confined Arts, and see more of Isaac’s artwork, visit: http://www.opportunitiesandchange.org/events.html
Photos provided by Isaac Scott.