Hamilton County Jail inmates unveil 'Birds of Freedom' mural on Glass Street

Inmates who worked on the "Birds of Freedom" mural first completed simple avian drawings. (Photo from Mark Making)
photo About 75 Hamilton County Jail inmates earned achievement certificates for their participation in the "Birds of Freedom" mural. The project took a year, with a rotating roster of about a dozen participants attending class each Friday night. (Photo from Mark Making)

For the artists involved in the new mural "Birds of Freedom," the concept of life as a blank canvas may have been hard to conceive when they began the project.

All are inmates at the Hamilton County Jail serving time for various offenses. Canvases blemished, lives on hold.

"We have people who have been arrested but not convicted. People who've been held for six months because they couldn't make bail. People who skipped parole and went back in. Murderers and rapists, A to Z," says Frances McDonald, founder and executive director of Mark Making, the community arts organization behind the project.

Mark Making has hosted classes in the jail almost every Friday night since 2012, through funding from the Tennessee Arts Commission. Art is part of a broader range of offerings, including GED study, counseling and faith-based activities, designed to rehabilitate inmates.

Art participants typically rotate through for about three months (once a quarter), but McDonald says she wanted more long-term involvement for this project, a mural in which the inmates could express a message to people on the outside. Before they began, they discussed the stigma associated with being an offender and the us vs. them culture they experience.

McDonald says they wanted to demonstrate the idea that after rejoining society, they could be worthwhile citizens capable of creating work that beautifies neighborhoods. They settled on the theme of birds, "beautiful creatures experiencing freedom."

Now hanging from a billboard at 2501 Glass St., the colorful mural depicts an abundance of birds in flight or sentineled upon a pair of power lines. The birds are beautifully rendered with fanciful colors and imaginative details. Shadows mirror birds in flight.

"The background is really simple - sky and clouds," says McDonald. But even those details were left up to the artists, who offered input on the placement of the clouds and the blueness of the sky.

The project proceeded in stages, with simple drawings that evolved into individualized birds crafted from the artists' imaginations. They made paper birds they could fold and manipulate to better understand the mechanics of flight. Digital versions of their drawings were then used in Photoshop sessions to get sizing and spacing right for the billboard. The birds were scaled, traced onto parachute cloth and then painted during classes with McDonald and other facilitators.

"We were kind of their hands and legs while the mural was housed in the studio," McDonald says.

From preliminary discussions to the finished piece, "Birds of Freedom" took a year to complete. During that time, she says, about 75 inmates attended art classes and had a hand in creating the mural.

In an evaluation of the class, one inmate said, "I learned and am still learning how to deal with and work with people. Learning a lot of art skills is fun. I love everything about this class."

McDonald says not all of the artists are novices, though previous creations are often tattoo-related.

"We're constantly seeing people with a lot of talent, people who come to the class already knowing things," she says. "The most surprising is the talent that comes out of people who have never done anything artistic in their lives."

Mark Making typically works with underserved or disenfranchised populations, primarily children, teens and adults with disabilities, the homeless and the incarcerated. Their goal is transforming communities through the arts.

But "Birds of Freedom" has proved that "it's not just about the art," McDonald says. "It's about being able to do something you've never done before.

"When you can create something when you didn't know how, what else can you do? Get a new job? A new career? Go back to school? This gives you courage."

Contact Lisa Denton at ldenton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6281.