Minn. inmate works on portraits of county sheriffs

Published 1:25 pm Saturday, August 14, 2010

By Wendy Reuer

Owatonna People’s Press

OWATONNA — Jess Bohlman is not going back to jail.

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After about 17 years and six return trips due to substance abuse problems, Bohlman knows that once he gets out, he won’t be returning. Not this time.

Not only is he clean, he’s found a way to stay that way. Even though many around him have known his talents would take him far one day, it took Bohlman a little while longer — and a stay at the Steele County Detention Center — to really figure it out himself.

“He’s just a phenomenal artist,” said Dan Schember, Steele County Detention Center administrator. “His story is really what it is all about. Some people — your gut can just tell you — and he’s one of them, he’s not going back.”

Forty-four year old Jess C. Robert Bohlman — his full name — is an accomplished artist, whose specialty is portraits.

Bohlman started drawing in 1991 after his first incarceration in St. Cloud. When Bohlman arrived, a lock-down was just beginning and a jailer gave him paper and pencils and told him drawing or writing would be a good idea to occupy his time and mind.

After his release, Bohlman returned to the family tree service business but eventually found himself back in prison.

Bohlman credits the change in himself to his most recent journey through the justice system, which started in 2007. Bohlman was caught allowing a drug manufacturer to live at his property and was eventually sentenced to 79 months for aiding and abetting in a controlled substance crime — however the sentence was much shorter than what could have been given Bohlman’s record — and a movement in his life had already begun.

Famed Minnesota artist Nancy Mooney took notice of Bohlman and began to urge him to continue with his art outside of jail. She was willing to stand behind him, and Bohlman agreed to treatment and successfully completed the substance abuse program, New Beginnings in Waverly.

Then, Bohlman arrived at the Steele County Detention Center in March where administrators took notice of his talent.

“I’ve never been anywhere like here,” Bohlman said of the Steele County jail. “People were so nice and friendly. Everyone treats you like you are … like you are human.”

Although he has been surrounded by violence and anger for nearly 20 years of incarceration, the gentle-natured, soft-spoken Bohlman has not let it harden him.

“I believe everybody has an artistic ability. Even if you draw a stick figure, that’s a piece of art,” Bohlman said. “I believe it’s positive way to express your emotions. It can be a positive way to work out whatever you are going through.”

Bohlman knows all-too-well how hard life can be. After suffering a traumatic event while a young child, he suffered depression and anxiety and tried to deal by using drugs.

“It’s a feeling that no drug has ever made me feel,” Bohlman said.

Bohlman’s specialty has always been portraits. He has drawn on requests from other inmates and from his own memories, using childhood experiences to create elegant moments on paper.

“It’s my goal when drawing a person is to not only make it look like them, but to capture their spirit, their personality,” Bohlman said. “That’s my goal when I do a portrait of anybody.”

Bohlman was asked by Schember to draw each of the 23 sheriffs that have served Steele County. Although Bohlman was at first nervous to draw from photos, he took to the task at hand and has already completed 14.

“The staff was incredibly patient with me. They got me whatever I needed and they never touched anything,” he said. “I almost got goose bumps sometimes because I felt like I was bringing them to life sometimes.”