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Inmate artists create beauty behind bars

November 06, 1998|By MARLO BARNHART

Artistic talent has a way of flourishing, even under difficult circumstances. Even behind bars.

The art group at the Maryland Correctional Institution south of Hagerstown operates on a shoestring budget, but the class members and the adviser are devoted to the program.

While admitting he has no background in art, MCI art group adviser Victor Wachs said he is into music and has a healthy appreciation for art.

"It has a very therapeutic value for the inmates," Wachs said. "This is art - it isn't inmate art. When it's on display, it makes people happy."

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None of the works is for sale but anybody can send their art home, Wachs said.

Wachs volunteered to oversee the program when his department, case management, inherited the art group program.

"The group was already in place when I came on board," Wachs said. The members soon educated him in how things work.

Inmates who are in the art group must pay for their own supplies from their inmate accounts, which includes their own funds and a stipend allotted to the program.

Every three months, $50 is made available for the group, Wachs said.

"If they can't afford their supplies, their families and friends can contribute," Wachs said.

In the past, the Washington County Arts Council also has supported the program.

There are about 40 inmates in the group, working in all media - pastels, pen and ink, lots of sprays, Wachs said.

"No oils are allowed, they are too toxic," he said.

All of the supplies can go back to the inmates' cells after class except the sprays. Art instruments also are carefully screened for security reasons.

Every Tuesday evening, the art group meets and works on projects.

Some of the art is displayed in the prison and in the community. There was a display at Hagerstown Community College last spring, and downtown stores often put up window displays.

"Murals are being painted in various locations throughout the prison," Wachs said. And in the near future, a mural is planned for the officers' dining room.

Wachs praised his students, saying some are very creative. Some inmates came to prison with artistic skills, while others have developed them while at MCI, Wachs said.

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