A prison is not a place I would think I’d find great art. Although, to be fair, The Workhouse hasn’t been a prison for a long time.
Still, it’s retained that hard, hollow feel. Even in the red glow of the setting sun, streaking across the facade leaving shadows in its wake, the former prison only looks stark and ominous.
The large, barren grass field. The repeating brick arches. The flat, brick buildings. It’s purely function, no form. It’s anti-beauty. It’s anti-art. It doesn’t seem like imagination could grow here.
A Painted Over Canvas
Perhaps though, this type of place is actually the perfect canvas for an art center. It’s not quite tabula rasa because it’s not blank. To call it blank would be to ignore what came before. It’s not a clean canvas. The stories of the incarcerated, like the suffragettes sent here just for peaceful protest and mistreated, can’t be ignored. Ghosts walk here, whether you believe in them or not.
The Workhouse is more like the bearded man found through modern infrared methods that unearthed the secret sketch beneath Picasso’s The Blue Room. Something came before at The Workhouse too, other stories. Those stories have now been painted over. That didn’t stop them from existing, but it did transform the canvas. It made it something else.
For a writer, The Workhouse is akin to journal with pages ripped out and then tossed aside and forgotten. There are still new pages ready to be filled. It doesn’t mean those discarded pages never had writing on them. But the new pages are primed for a story. They just needs a person and a pen. At The Workhouse the pens came in the form of paint brushes and pottery wheels.
The Story of Art
Good art, like any good story, makes you think and feel. Good art plucks that little string inside that says, “I know how that feels” or “I can imagine how that might happen.” Its picture can truly be worth a thousand words. However, I like to deconstruct that saying and imagine what those thousand words might be to make that picture.
I imagine the artist standing by the ocean who views waves not just blue and green, but also in crimson and gold. She sees the sun striking the water as a reflection of her heart, broken open and bleeding on the waves.
As I look at a painting like that, I build a story behind her, a love story of hope and loss and renewal, like a daybreak. It probably sounds crazy to some to think this way. But, like watching strangers and creating lives for them, this is how I view art. It’s a story I can write in my mind, one I can’t wait to read.
Despite my appreciation for art’s stories, I’ve never visited The Workhouse Arts Center before, even though it’s less than 20 minutes from my house. I’ve passed by the old prison with its fencing and intact white guard towers and turned my head away, a shiver raking down my back.
Opening the Prison Doors
I’m scared of it. It’s weird and strange and uncomfortable. Passing by the prison complex on the road leaves me feeling empty, bereft. I know artists rent space there. But I don’t see it. I don’t experience it. It’s hard to imagine walking in the footsteps of those ghosts that came before. It’s even harder to imagine that artistic beauty, thought, introspection could be nourished in that kind of a place.
Challenging uncomfortable feelings, facing them is part of being not just a writer, but a decent human being.
So, I needed to see what was behind the brick and cement of The Workhouse. I needed to see not just the story, but if art could actually transform more than just a fabric canvas.
Hall of Dreams
One night, one time a month, anyone can come to The Workhouse and roam halls lined with prison cells once filled with dank beds, uniformed men and women, and unknown sadness and horror. That one night, once a month, I visited, not sure what I would find…
I pulled open the first of the glass doors and entered a boxy room with a high desk and table of hors d’oeuvres of crackers and cheese. The room narrowed into a long, hallway lined with doors leading to square cells.
I waited for the shiver to creep down my spine. Once men and women had lived in these cells, if you could call it living. I could sense them. But I could sense something else. The starkness gave way to a re-imagination of this place, filled with color and brightness and darkness mixed together. Art settled in with the ghosts and they swirled together, coexisting.
Hallway after hallway of cement boxes and soaring, exposed ceilings become a backdrop rather than the centerpiece, transformed by color and texture, paint and sometimes even whimsy. White-washed walls of re-painted canvass stretch outward, pulling patrons down hallways and into rooms that offer glimpses into the mind of artists. Tables filled with paints, fabric tucked in looms, pencils clinking in cans fill the stark spaces with life and imagination.
Large origami birds floated above as artist sculpted clay into bowls. Glass glittered and bent into plates or bulbs or cat faces. Strips of fabrics dried and hardened into sea-like creatures. Artists wandered about, dispensing insight on art and life and travels and influences. Some sketched and painted and composed their artwork for us to watch.
It felt a bit unfinished, in-progress, like a cradle of imagination, like walking the bridge between idea and execution. It’s formation and transformation in one.
A particular favorite of both mine and my husband was a sculptor who created little whimsical scenes of animals with clay. Almost like a shadowbox, she had scenes like a cat pole dancing on a scratching post. Domesticated animals gone wild or, in her mind, what animals might do if we weren’t watching. There was a clay pool of synchronized swimming dogs. You’ll probably never see it in a museum, even though I found it more interesting and compelling than all the art in the Louvre.
A Rose in the Cement Wall
This unique artistic experience was vastly different from a stuffy museum or a trendy art gallery. It felt more interactive and experimental. Some pieces were brilliant, but still raw like the walls surrounding us. While others were clearly works in progress.
That’s what made this place special. It’s the beating heart of art, the struggle that makes the art important and real. As a writer I related to the unpolished nature of creation of artwork at The Workhouse Art Center, which as I left felt very aptly named.
We all strive to create something and when we do, we realize it’s always about the journey and not the destination. Perfection is elusive. Art is a chalkboard, scribbling and erasing and getting close but never fully satisfying the artist’s goal. Can artists really ever be satisfied? Isn’t that what makes an artist? Even if we like the sketch of the man, the drawing of the blue room seems better and something else still better might come after it. Growing, changing, evolving is art. There is no such thing as perfection.
The journey of The Workhouse from housing prisoners to housing artists is a long, rather strange one. It’s a story of transformation. A place that once confined turned into a place that sets ideas free. If we can do it with bricks and cement, why not with hearts and minds too? Because, at our core, I think the best of us are artists, even if we don’t draw or paint or write, we strive for perfection and smile when we never reach it. Because simply working and thinking and learning and changing and growing is the real definition of free.