“It’s a strange thing that happened when I began to write and when I began to draw,” said Ismael Santillanes, a construction worker who lives in Desert Hot Springs, California. In 1989, he began attending a new poetry workshop at the Northern Nevada Correctional Center, where he’d already been incarcerated for murder for about five years. He also took up drawing. He expected that pictures and verses would serve as escapes, as they seemed to for some of the other inmates.
“Mentally, we just want to get out of our own environment,” Santillanes said in a recent phone interview. “The strange thing was that it did something to me quite differently. It turned me around and made me start looking back into myself.”
He developed a distinct style of portraiture, rendering fellow inmates and famous writers in lines so frenzied it’s fair to call them scribbles—but with far more precision than the term would imply.
And he wrote poems. He realized a couple of years into writing that he was always trying to clarify his thoughts. And he still is.
“It was during that journey of searching for the right word, that I found my own sense of humanity,” he wrote in a blog entry, which Nevada Humanities plans to post in January. “The more I wrote, the more I searched, and the more of me I found.” He said the process saved his life.
Shaun T. Griffin—a Virginia City poet with over a dozen published books to his name and a spot in the Nevada Writers Hall of Fame—started the poetry workshop that Santillanes attended. He assigns readings of ancient and modern poets and coaches inmates through writing their own poems. He doesn’t have an exact count of how many students he’s had—somewhere around 150, maybe. But he does know how many have been released from prison and returned: two. Normally, Griffin said, the recidivism rate is more like 50 percent.
“My real reason for going out there is to give them the tools and the skills they need when they get out to stay out,” he said. And in many cases, he also teaches a survival skill for those expected to stay for life.
“I think the sort of aha moment has happened to everybody who takes the workshop—everyone,” Griffin said. “They’ve all written breakthrough poems, stuff that’ll make you cry. They’ve fought to write those lines. They’ve worked years to understand why a line works and why a poem works, and, for some, it’s the holy grail. I mean, if you’re a kid, 20s and 30s, and looking at life without [parole], you’ve gotta have a reason to stay alive. That’s what this does.”
Once inmates are released from prison, not many continue to write or paint.
“The odds of staying out are so high, it takes everything they have,” Griffin said. “Getting a job or a house or a relationship if you’re a felon is just so difficult.”
Santillanes, who has been out of prison for five years and is married, said it’s hard to find time to make artwork. “I have to work, pay the bills,” he said.
His artwork and poems have had a life outside of the prison, though. In 2002, VSA—now called Arts for All Nevada—exhibited his drawings. In 2014, the University of Nevada, Reno’s Black Rock Press published his volume of poems, Indelicate Angels. His poetry has appeared in Razor Wire, a journal of inmates’ work for which Griffin is editor. This year, Santillanes was part of the Nevada Humanities Literary Crawl in Reno, and his illustrations were published in 30 Years Behind Bars, a memoir by retired prison doctor Karen Gedney. Beginning Dec. 6, his drawings will be part of an exhibition at the Nevada Humanities Program Gallery, along with artwork by Laurence Taafe and Juan Carlos “Chile” Cervantes—and work by several poets.
Right now, Santillanes is working on “a portrait for a birthday boy,” an 84-year-old family friend whose striking facial features he couldn’t resist drawing.
“[Art] still plays almost that same role out here that it did in prison,” he said. “It turns me inwards. It quiets me. Some might say it’s a form of meditation. I don’t find it so mediative an act. My mind is going a billion miles an hour, thinking about all kinds of things. … I’m trying to see—why is it that I see things this way. Why is it that I have this opinion of that person? All of these things that I’m thinking when I’m drawing are questions about who I am.”
As for Griffin, he still shows up at the prison chapel every other week to teach poetry, almost 30 years after he began.
“This stuff is life-saving,” he said. “I don’t care if it’s dance, music, it’s life saving. … You can’t wave a wand and adjudicate someone’s past. You have to crawl slowly back into the present, and art helps them do that. Art’s a way to re-form the horizon that they’re living in.”
Razor Wire, an exhibition of artwork and poetry by inmates, curated by poet Shaun T. Griffin, opens Dec. 6 at Nevada Humanities Program Gallery in the Art Square Garden Courtyard, 1017 S. First St., #190, Las Vegas. The exhibition runs through Jan. 23. For more information, call (702) 800-4670 or visit www.nevadahumanities.org
An opening reception is scheduled for 6-9 p.m., Dec. 6. At 7 p.m., Griffin plans to give a curator’s talk, followed by poetry readings by Cornell Wilkins, Durrell Grier and Glynn Scott.
The new issue of Razor Wire, a journal of inmates’ art and poetry, is available at the Nevada Humanities Program Gallery in Las Vegas and Sundance Books + Music in Reno.