Beyond the Bricks connects inmates and community

Art has a way of bringing people of all walks of life together. For the first time, artists with The Crossing Arts Alliance (TCAA) collaborated with Crow Wing County Jail inmates to put together an art exhibit, titled "Beyond the Bricks." The exh...

Artist Lily Atwel with Crow Wing County Jail inmate Dillon Forrest, who worked together on artwork focused around time for the Beyond the Bricks collaborative project through the Crossing Arts Alliance and the jail.
Artist Lily Atwel with Crow Wing County Jail inmate Dillon Forrest, who worked together on artwork focused around time for the Beyond the Bricks collaborative project through the Crossing Arts Alliance and the jail.

Art has a way of bringing people of all walks of life together.

For the first time, artists with The Crossing Arts Alliance (TCAA) collaborated with Crow Wing County Jail inmates to put together an art exhibit, titled "Beyond the Bricks."

The exhibit, consisting of mixed media art pieces created by inmates and artists in the community, was on display Thursday for the inmates to enjoy. The artwork will be available for public viewing when it goes on display during the Brainerd School District's Homecoming week from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sept. 25 through Oct. 11 at the Q Gallery located at the Franklin Arts Center in Brainerd. The public opening reception will be at 8:30 p.m. Sept 25 at the Q Gallery.

Elsie Husom, artist with the TCAA and project manager of the Beyond and Behind the Bricks project, along with Krista Rolfzen Soukup, said artists have volunteered their time in the jail helping inmates with artwork for a few years. However, this is the first time an exhibit has been created using the artwork of the inmates and the first time where the artwork was used to publish a book titled, "Beyond the Bricks" - thus the title of the project, Beyond and Behind the Bricks.

Husom said there were more than 80 inmates who participated in the project, which began in September of 2013 through May of this year. Through this time period, artists volunteered their time to go into the Brainerd jail each week to work with the inmates on artwork that varied from 3-D pieces, water color, writing such as poems, paintings and collages.


Of all the pieces created by the inmates, more than 100 are being used for the exhibit and the book, which is being published by RiverPlace Press and will be launched at the public art reception of the exhibit. There are more than 50 art pieces created by artists in the Brainerd lakes area in the exhibit, including Greg Rosenberg, Barbara Morgan and Bev Abear.

Since the beginning, when Husom personally got involved in coming into the jail to work with the inmates, she said seeing how much it has helped the inmates has been gratifying.

"A lot of tears and emotions go into their art pieces," said Husom of the inmates. "I normally don't use this word, but the women's group were gleeful, almost giddy. They were so excited to do something that took them out of the jail and to do something normal. They poured their hearts into their art."

Husom said when the inmates were looking at the display Thursday, one of them, Dillon Forrest, pointed to a poem he had written and noticed a companion piece by artist Lily Atwel. Atwel and Forrest spent "quite a while talking about different parts of each of their pieces."

"The inmates are not proud of being in jail, but this project allows them to feel pride in accomplishing something positive while in jail," said Husom.

Husom said the community connection made between the inmates and artists/volunteers is one of the main goals of the project, which is funded through the Five Wings Arts Council.

Forrest, who talked with the Dispatch while in jail, said he chose writing as his art "because in here that is all we have is time. I tried to express in my writing how much time means to people. I'm not really artistic but I am really good with my words and I am a good speaker.

"I wrote a few, but only one made it in the exhibit. I thought it was really nice of the ladies who put it (exhibit) on. It was great for them to come in here and work with us. It helps the time go by faster."


Forrest said when he looked through the exhibit he enjoyed seeing all the inmates' artwork, ones who have since been released from jail.

"I now see them in a different light," said Forrest. "They don't express themselves openly while in jail, they play the tough guy (role)."

When asked if the inmate or other inmates learned from the experience or asked what they will take out of it, Forrest said, "Well I can't speak for anyone else, but I feel this would help anyone as long as they make good use out of it" and put their best effort into the project.

Atwel of Brainerd works with a variety of art mediums and specializes in 3-D and collages. Atwel said working with the inmates was fun and satisfying. She said it was nice to see the women's group enthusiastic when working on their art pieces and having access to a variety of community resources through the project.

Atwel was not wary about coming into the jail to help the inmates, as she worked as a part-time dispatcher at a law enforcement center in southern Minnesota.

"You realize when you work with inmates that people are people," Atwel said. "We are all human beings.

"If this project continues I'll do it again next year. It's a commitment but if you are enriching the lives of others, as well as your own, it is well worth the effort."

Marcia Mans of Baxter has volunteered her time with the inmates for the past two to three years helping them with their writing.


"I help them get their thoughts/feelings down on paper," said Mans. "I'm not there to train them to be poets or anything ... Some of their writing is unbelievable. There is so much talent in the jail, it's amazing.

"Coming to the jail made me realize that everyone is the same inside. We are all humans and have similarities. They (inmates) have an amazing spirit."

Mans said one inmate who made an impact on her was a Native American man, who wrote several writings about his culture from the past, present and future. She didn't help him with his writings she just was able to witness his writing. Mans thinks his writings should be published.

One example of that inmate's writing was titled "Grandmas and Grandpas." An excerpt from the writing includes: "Many stories and legends were passed down. The grandmas and grandpas sacrificed so much ... Be proud to be Anishanabe, the first people. Respect your elders and care for them. The thing they know is who we are."

Miranda Neuwirth, program sergeant of the jail, said the Beyond and Behind the Bricks project is important. She said the public doesn't always realize that some of these inmates, who are their neighbors, are only in here for a short time. Neuwirth said many of the inmates are talented and the project allows them to work with the community in a positive way.

"It's really cool," Neuwirth said. "This allows the inmates an outlet to express themselves and, with the exhibit, where they can show the public what they have done.

"A lot of the inmates seemed excited to come back each week to work on their art."

Neuwirth said of all the inmates who created art for the exhibit, there are currently only a select few still in the Crow Wing County Jail. The others have moved on to other prison facilities or have been released from jail.


Neuwirth said her hope Thursday was for the other inmates to view the exhibit and it would show them that, "they too can find their talent and show their creative side."

Rolfzen Soukup of Blue Cottage Agency said the start of the collaborative project was a group effort and a lot of factors came into play. The artists already were going into the jail working with the inmates. They wanted to expand that. Another factor was retired teacher Lowell Johnson, who has a passion for children's literacy and part of the Fathers Reading Every Day program.

Johnson, who also is involved in the Outside Inside Connection group at the jail, said the key to success in children's literacy is adult literacy. Johnson said if adults are educated about literacy they will more likely help their own children with literacy.

Johnson said the hope of the collaborative project is to give inmates the experience to express what is going on in their lives in a positive way. He hopes the project will help inmates learn from their behaviors that brought them to jail and allow them to be successful when they are released.

Johnson said the exhibit also is a chance for the community to gain insight of the lives of those who are incarcerated.

Chip and Jean Borkenhagen of RiverPlace Press, who publish several local author books, donated a "good chunk of their time to help put the 'Behind the Bricks' book together." The book will be 80 pages long and 6- by 9-inches in size.

"It's really a gorgeous book," Chip Borkenhagen said. "The artwork and the writing is at a higher level than I anticipated. We felt a huge degree of pride to be a part of making this project happen.

"We believe art in the community is crucial in building a community and giving people a voice. I can't express myself well verbally ... I am most comfortable in expressing myself with my own art."


Borkenhagen said the exhibit gave inmates the opportunity to express themselves through the art they feel most comfortable with, an opportunity they normally would have never had.

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