Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Mind over Matter: M&Ms into Art

How we as humans can adapt to stressful situations has always amazed me. I am an extremist; I either blow up or slink quietly into the woodwork, preferring to suffer alone. I find as I get older, I do more of the latter than the former. But when faced with the unthinkable or the prospect of loss of freedom, the mind can do wonderful things. There is evidence that in the concentration camps in WW II, prisoners created art, performed music and plays, married, and kept their cultures alive. Some actually emerge as better persons from their ordeals.

This musing was prompted by this article BEHIND BARS, HE TURNS M&Ms INTO ART FORM (if the link to the New York Times does not work, a snippet is here) about a prison artist in one of the toughest prisons in the US, Pelican Bay Secure Housing Unit in Crescent City, CA. Despite its bucolic name, Pelican Bay is no resort. The secure unit inmates, mostly in for murder, gang activity or crimes committed while in prison, are out of their cells only 1 hour a day. Rarely are they even outside, their recreation yard has a Plexiglas covering over it. Privileges are few and the atmosphere is always chaotic and dangerous.

But with little to do and facing life in the unit, Donny Johnson takes candy (M&Ms preferred), melts them in water and uses a brush made from his own hair to paint intense, colorful miniature paintings that have been recently displayed in the tony artist colony of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. The lack of sensory stimulation (SHU is uniformly white and gray and inmates are not allowed to have contact visits nor to touch other inmates) is tantamount to torture. Yet Johnson has found an outlet, his mind finding ingenious ways to keep his humanity alive.

Some of the inmates I write to discovered instead of sinking into long term despair and depression their used their time and innate and unknown ingenuity to survive, keep their sanity and even better themselves.

Jon has used his time to write volumes in his blog, read over 200 books in a year and learn Chinese. Another inmate pal admits to not being a good student in school and never finishing high school but can do a sudoku puzzle, even the most difficult in minutes. I have never finished one of them, even the simple ones. Michael has gotten his GED and is working on two degrees in English Literature and Computer Science. He’ll be 68 when he is released, he is 31 now.

I am not sure how I would react if that happened to me. I tend to think I would be a blubbering fool who would do what I could to end my misery. But, the mind is powerful; the will to survive and flourish is strong. I hope not to find out.


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