published Tuesday, July 22nd, 2014

Hamilton County Jail inmates find an escape in art

Art teacher Elizzabeth Beil works with convicted inmates inside the Hamilton County Jail during art class on the third floor of the facility.
Art teacher Elizzabeth Beil works with convicted inmates inside the Hamilton County Jail during art class on the third floor of the facility.
Photo by Tim Barber.

Some are white, some black. Some wear orange jumpsuits, others red to signify their status as high-risk offenders. All are shackled around their ankles and have the same jail-issued orange sandals on their feet.

By legal and societal definitions, these men are anything but free.

But for an hour and a half on Friday nights, inmates at the Hamilton County Jail use art to escape to different places even while they remain behind bars.

Mark Making, a nonprofit organization dedicated to empowering local nonprofessional artists, offers the nine-week course that instructors say is rewarding for them and emotionally beneficial for the inmates.

No one makes the inmates attend, and art class is actually one of the more popular extracurricular offerings at the jail.

"It's a peaceful way to express myself on paper," said inmate Christopher Wehunt, 34. "It's a calming effect in a place that's so violent."

On a recent Friday, Wehunt and seven others sat at tables and worked as instructor Elizzabeth Beil explained the night's project. While they worked, Beil and Mark Making executive director Frances McDonald paced the room examining the projects of their students and offering tips.

Between teaching moments, silence reigned as all eight sets of eyes focused on the task at hand: a collage expressing each person's favorite tastes, smells, feels, sights and sounds.

For 28-year-old Ricky Davis that included drawing basketball stars Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade. Davis grew up in East Lake Courts and played sports at Howard School.

Though awaiting an August hearing on several aggravated burglary charges, he said the Friday art class is something he looks forward to during the week. "You can relate to it," he said. "I knew how to draw [before the class], but not anything more than just messing around."

In his feedback about a previous session of the class Davis wrote, "make it longer and more times a week."

Wehunt faces charges of felony murder and aggravated arson and also has a hearing scheduled for August.

"The best thing you can do is stay positive," he said. "And this class is one of the things that helps me do that. It makes me feel like a kid inside again."

Contact staff writer David Cobb at dcobb@timesfreepres.com or 423-757-6731.

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