Art Center, Freeborn Co. jail partner up for show of detainees’ art

Published 9:00 am Sunday, March 11, 2018

The Freeborn County jail has a constant rotation of in-house artists.

Once a week since the fall, the jail’s program room is converted into a painting studio. On Wednesday, the tables were covered with clear plastic sheets lightly dappled with a few spots of paint. Every week, there are six spaces for detainees to attend a 2 1/2-hour art class with volunteer Jim Dalton. That’s about all that will fit in the space.

“It takes some elbow room to paint,” Freeborn County jail Program Coordinator Heather Coombs said.

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Several pieces created by members of Dalton’s class will be on display at the Albert Lea Art Center. The show, “On Both Sides of the Bars,” opens at 1 p.m. Sunday.

Albert Lea Art Center member Bev Jackson Cotter said the show falls in line with the original purpose of the Albert Lea Art Center: education. According to Cotter, art is not limited to a small group of people.

“It’s open to everybody and everybody’s art,” she said of the Art Center.

The show will also include pieces of creative writing created in another program at the jail, led by Carolyn Smith and Carolina Pena. These programs are two of approximately 20 programs that come and go, Coombs said.

Albert Lea Art Center gallery manager Tom Mullen said Dalton approached the Art Center with the idea for a show. Many of the frames for the pieces were donated by the Art Center, and some were donated by Dalton.

Members in Dalton’s painting class use 8-by-10 canvases for their work. Oftentimes, they won’t be in class enough times to finish something bigger.

“The turnover is so high, every week there’s someone new,” Coombs said.

One of the pieces in the show, a large pencil drawing of a cross with two birds holding a banner, was created by four people as the artists came and left. Dalton said he likes it when people attend his classes more than once because it means he can watch them make progress in their works. But because he most often has students one time only, he said he tries to focus on three things: light, shadow and contrast.

On Wednesday, the class followed what Dalton said is his usual format: a few minutes of instruction, and then the rest of the time is reserved for painting. Many of the detainees haven’t painted before Dalton’s class, he said, although several of his past students have been skilled pencil artists.

“A lot of these pictures are just the first hour and a half, two hours that they’ve painted,” Dalton said.

It’s a fixed space, so Dalton brings the inspiration to his students. Several of the pieces in the show are carbon copies: paintings of paintings Dalton himself did and brought in for his students to see. There are also several pieces with a grouping of fall gourds from a set Dalton brought in for a still life. On Wednesday, detainees comb through some photos from Dalton’s vacations.

Dalton said he is not an art teacher by trade — he has a background in corrections.

“I’m sharing my hobby,” he said.

He’s also sharing a closet with the other programs the jail puts on. Supplying the program has been a challenge, Coombs said.

“Our budget is incredibly tight,” she said. They have purchased supplies a few times and have also received some donations. Art, Coombs said, is not a cheap hobby. She is in the process of creating a wish list with donatable items for the jail’s programming.

On March 2, members of the Albert Lea Art Center attended the Freeborn County jail’s art show — the inside version. Before groups of detainees came to view the art some of their predecessors made, jail administrator Mike Stasko joined the group to talk about the program and its impact within the jail.

“I think it’s a good way for the guys to relax a little bit,” Stasko said to Art Center members.

Coombs said she has noticed when detainees are kept busy with positive activity, she sees fewer behavioral issues.

“Art has always been known as something very healing,” Coombs said.

Furthermore, it’s an activity that hasn’t met major barriers due to language differences.

“There’s no language,” Coombs said. “Art is every language.”

So next Wednesday, the brushes will come out again.

If you go

Who: Albert Lea Art Center, Freeborn Co. Jail

What: “On Both Sides of the Bars” art show

When: Open house from 1 to 3 p.m. Sunday

Where: 226 W. Clark St.

About Sarah Kocher

Sarah covers education and arts and culture for the Tribune.

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