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From the Inside Out

How artistic prisoners and needy kids are helping each other cope with their troubles.

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Let's call him Jesus. He doesn't want anybody to know where he was for 15 years, between 1985 and January of this year. He's got a good job now and a family, so why jeopardize the good name he's been building up? But he was in prison. He did something stupid and irrevocable as a kid, and he spent a lot of time in some of the toughest joints in Illinois.

Jesus was a teenager when he started drawing. He often carried a pad and ebony pencils with him. One day, though, he carried a gun, and with it committed a murder that landed him a 30-year sentence.

We're about to sit down at a long folding table in a little auditorium at Casa Aztlan, a social service agency in Pilsen. Jesus is here. So is Carlos Camargo, an art dealer, and Myrna Alvarez, after-school program coordinator for the agency. They're going to tell me about "Art Without Barriers," an exhibition of paintings that will be auctioned off next week to benefit Casa Aztlan.

"We have been in existence since the early 70s," Alvarez begins as I unfold my chair. It makes a rusty groan. "Casa Aztlan was one of the first Chicano movement organizations in the city of Chicago."

Casa Aztlan has earned its reputation as an arts and culture center. With a sweep of her arm, Alvarez directs our attention to the vivid murals encircling the auditorium. "The murals you see on this floor went up in 1972," she says. They've been reconditioned once already, and about two weeks ago volunteers began carefully detaching them from the walls to redo them again, this time on canvas. "The drywall," Alvarez explains, "was actually starting to fall off the walls."

Glancing at the murals, I casually take my seat. The folding chair collapses under me. Alvarez, who is horrified, laughs nervously and says, "Now you owe us for a chair."

There's an element of truth to her joke. The chair I broke probably won't be replaced anytime soon. That's why Jesus entered the picture.

"I have a brother who's incarcerated," Alvarez says. "While visiting him at Cook County Jail--it's a long time ago now--I met Chuy [Jesus's nickname]. Years after that, after my brother was transferred to Pontiac, I met him again. Chuy had become involved in what they called the Gaol Jaycees."

The Jaycees were first organized in an Illinois prison in the mid-80s at Menard, and the idea spread to other Illinois prisons where there were nearby Jaycees chapters willing to oversee the inmates. Each prison group had its own name, and the Pontiac inmates called themselves the Gaol Jaycees. Their charter stated that their activities must somehow benefit the outside community. Jesus became a board member.

"We sold mainly food, concessions," Jesus says. "There were two yards at Pontiac and there was a shack by each yard. Pretty much all day long we sold pizzas and pops and ice cream from those shacks. The money went back to the community. We were not allowed to keep it for ourselves. One of our board members was a bookkeeper, and he dealt hand in hand with the accountant of the institution. Monthly they would sit down and open the books just to make sure everything was correct."

One day, while visiting her brother, Alvarez and Jesus had a chat. "He asked us if we could bring someone down and talk to the members about Casa Aztlan. He didn't grow up too far from here, right on California and Cermak. They thought, 'Why not give back to our community rather than Pontiac, which might not need help as much as the inner city?'"

Jesus's group sent Alvarez money to rent a van so she and a couple of other Casa Aztlan staff members could drive down to Pontiac. When they arrived they explained to the Gaol Jaycees that Casa Aztlan offers GED classes, citizenship workshops, immigrants' aid, health referrals, youth programs, and an energy assistance program to the mainly Mexican residents of Pilsen.

"They made a big impact," Jesus says. "A lot of the guys never heard about what Casa Aztlan does. The program was bigger than I thought. It was a good thing, a very good thing."

Alvarez's after-school program was started in 1982. "We provide services for kids age 7 to 14," she says. "We have activities throughout the week, including homework assistance, ceramic classes, guitar classes. We have recreational activities for them. When spring break is here, we go out on field trips all week. When Christmas vacation comes, we stay open so the kids can come in and not be home alone. We take them to a show, we take them to the zoo, we take them to parts of the city where they would normally not be able to go. Tomorrow we're having a Thanksgiving potluck. All the kids are bringing something in and we're making the turkey. Most of the kids don't even know what a whole turkey looks like!"

Soon after the visit, the Gaol Jaycees sent Casa Aztlan a check for $500. "We bought a TV," she says. "We bought kids' supplies. After that, we got money again the following year."

"These guys on the inside were helping people on the outside," Carlos Camargo says.

Jesus was transferred to the Hill Correctional Center in Galesburg in 1996. Before leaving Pontiac he urged the Gaol Jaycees to continue helping Casa Aztlan any way they could. But in 1997 the Department of Corrections disbanded all the prison Jaycees groups. The Jaycees were just one in a laundry list of moneymaking inmate activities that the DOC says it feared could fall under gang control.

Alvarez says, "They wrote me and said, 'Myrna, we can't help you with any more money after this but would you like a freezer?' And they gave us two microwaves. They gave us money to rent a truck to get out there and then they gave us a $400 check on top of that."

Just barely out of his teens when he arrived at Pontiac, Jesus had brought his pad and ebony pencils with him, and his years in the Illinois correctional system gave him time to hone his skills. "I was drawing one day in the yard," he says. "One of the old guys was there painting nearby. He seen me." The old guy cast an expert glance at Jesus's sketches and then showed the kid what he was painting. "He said, 'Hey, would you like to give it a shot?' I did. He gave me my supplies. My first painting was a little Indian boy dancing. He saw it and said, 'You know what? You've got it.' It came out pretty good, the first one, so he was my motivation. I stuck with it."

Jesus read every art book he could find in the prison library. He asked fellow inmates who painted for help. And he began to paint every day. "Practice, as with anything, makes you better," he says. "I got the color schemes and everything. It just came. If you work hard enough at anything, you'll be all right."

When he got to Galesburg, Jesus spent so much time in the prison art room that eventually he got a work assignment there. "I figured this is what I want to do," he says. "I would sell paintings. They allowed us to sell paintings on our own. The institution would get 10 percent and you would get the remainder. I was sending money to my wife." (He'd been seeing a girl before he went to prison and they married in 1987.)

"Then I started teaching classes. They had a nice art room but there was nobody who could sit down and show somebody how to paint. Since I had already six years of painting and I was pretty good, I took on the task. The other guys in the art room used to ask me for help all the time anyway."

One day Jesus called Alvarez from Galesburg. "I still want to help your program," he said. "Maybe there's a way we can help each other. I would like to know if you would bring a couple of artists to come out and talk to the guys who like to paint? Maybe they can tell us what to do when we come home as an artist. How hard is it? What should we start doing now that we're here so that when we go home we have something in our hands that says, 'Look, I want to start doing this'?"

Alvarez agreed to Jesus's request. But before she and the artists set off for Galesburg, Jesus contacted her again and suggested they take inmates' paintings back to Chicago with them. "You do whatever you can with them," he told her. "Sell them. Raffle them off. Whatever. All the money comes back to your kids."

"We talked about Casa Aztlan, what we do," Alvarez says. "The artists talked about their mediums, how they work, how long they've been working, and how hard it is to get into the business. The artists answered questions. They looked at the inmates' paintings and gave them tips. They told them how to build a portfolio so when they came back home they'd know how to present it. We came back with 24 paintings."

With those paintings, Alvarez staged a benefit auction in late 1998. Casa Aztlan sold 18 of the paintings and raised $2,700. "They purchased a computer for the kids and they took them on some field trips," Jesus says. "I wish I could have been here for that one."

"He's the one that organized everything," Alvarez says, nodding toward Jesus. "He's the one that was calling me. He's the one that got the classes started. He's the one that got the money to get the materials. He's the one that talked to the institution counselors to get the money to get us out there. He did everything. All we did was show up.

"It's a really hard thing to do when you're in an institution. It's not like I could call him and say, 'Hey, what are we gonna do about this?' It'd be weeks before we could talk to each other. He eventually got it to a point where I was able to contact his counselor. His counselor would get to him and then he would get back to me. That's how good a job he did organizing. His counselor was trusting enough that he would accept my collect calls. We can't make long distance calls from our phones here! He did all the hard work."

Casa Aztlan had hoped to stage another "Art Without Barriers" last year but the Galesburg warden wouldn't allow inmates to ship their paintings as a group. The inmates sent the pieces individually, and by the time enough of them arrived in Pilsen for an exhibition and auction, it was too late to stage it.

But a second "Art Without Barriers" exhibition can now be seen in Casa Aztlan's second-floor gallery, where it will remain until December 20. That's the day when the paintings, the works of 14 inmates, will be auctioned at West Side Technical Institute. "It's very interesting work," says Camargo, who specializes in Central and South American art. "What impressed me as an art dealer was the human part behind this. Perhaps these are not masterpieces, but what is involved with each of these pieces is what moves me. I'm very emotional for these things."

Jesus says art has a deep effect on inmates' morale. "We used to tell the officials all the time painting was very therapeutic," he says. "It calms you down. You ask any artist--when you get into it, you're into it. The time goes. When you're in an institution, it helps. With the art, before you know it another year has gone by."

At the time of the 1998 auction, when Jesus was still at Galesburg, art dealers and community activists clamored to speak with him. He says, "These people wanted to meet me and talk about my artwork, and I would tell Myrna, 'It's not about me. It's about your program. It's about the kids.'

"The kids, that was the focus all the time," Jesus says.

Jesus turns 36 in January, about the time he completes his first year of parole. He'll be on parole for three years in all, and during this time he must phone his parole officer about his whereabouts and work activities every week. He's steering clear of friends from his life before prison. "I hope they're doing good," he says. "But I'm just focused on what's going on with me. If I see them, I say, 'Hey, how you doing?' I wish them the best. But I don't get into nothing. I'm staying by myself. I don't go nowhere. I work and I paint."

When people ask him what he went away for, he says, "It was a serious mistake. I would like to leave it at that." Few people at his place of work know the real history. "You can pretty much shape your own path," he says. "I believe I'm on the right path."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry.

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