Connecting Through Art: Portraits of Lives Behind Bars | News, Sports, Jobs


James Dalton taught art classes to inmates and inmates at the Freeborn County Detention Center for several years. Their works will be displayed in an exhibition called “Both Sides of the Bars”, which will be held at Wells’ The Bean for the next three months. Here, Dalton is pictured with a striking painting by a Sudanese inmate.

“Art is a way of expressing individuality. It is something we share in common. Wells resident and art enthusiast James Dalton watches.

“Both Sides of the Bars,” an exhibit featuring art by inmates, inmates, and correctional staff at Albert Lea’s Freeborn County Detention Center, provides visual evidence of Dalton’s claim.

The ground-breaking exhibit will come to Wells’ The Bean in July, August and September this year.

The café will also host a special reception in honor of the exhibition, filled with cheese, crackers and delicious drinks, on July 14, from 7 to 9 p.m.

“Both Sides of the Bars” is the product of a unique program designed by Heather Coombs, program coordinator at the Freeborn County Detention Center.

The program, currently on hiatus due to COVID restrictions, has operated successfully for several years. It even won the Dave Grant Program of the Year Award from Minnesota Prison Programs and Services in 2018.

Coombs enlisted Carolyn Smith, with the help of translator Carolina Pena, to teach the program’s writing classes. However, she also needed an art teacher, and that’s where Dalton came in.

This was by no means the first time he had worked within the walls of a detention center.

“I’ve been in corrections all my life,”Dalton explains. He served as Faribault County Probation Officer for several decades.

Originally, he sought a change after his retirement.

“I wanted to do something light and fluffy after I retired, so I took up painting.”laughed Dalton.

His new hobby took him back to familiar territory when he joined the Freeborn County Detention Center art program.

It was familiar territory, but from an entirely new perspective.

“What really changed me was that it was amazing how close you got, emotionally, to (inmates and inmates) sharing something that you love,”says Dalton.

Procedures that had been routine throughout his career suddenly felt shocking.

For example, Dalton recalls how strange it was to see his students being patted down before leaving the art room.

The procedure was instituted as a necessary safety measure.

“In art class, they can use long pencils. In prison, they can only use short pencils,”Dalton explains. “Once a guy smuggled out a long pencil and he was punished for it.”

Dalton had observed and performed pat-down procedures countless times as a corrections officer. Now, however, it was different.

“It would bother me”he says. “They weren’t inmates or inmates – they were just art students.”

Dalton students found their time in the art room equally transformative.

He recalls, “One of the best compliments I received was, ‘It was the only two hours in the week that I didn’t feel like I was in jail.’ They arrive angry and sad, but that’s just art.

The works of art themselves are a tapestry of human experience and emotion.

Their creators are both inmates and inmates.

Dalton notes that there is an important distinction between the two groups. While inmates are jailed for breaking a law in Freeborn County, inmates are being held by the federal government for deportation.

Inmates at the Freeborn County Detention Center come from all over the world: Central America, South America, Africa and the Middle East.

While showing some of his favorite pieces, Dalton points out one that was created by a Sudanese.

The painted figures on horseback and the charging buffalo spring alive on the canvas.

Dalton observes that many of his students had well-developed drawing skills as former tattoo artists, but only a few were also skilled painters.

This artist, however, demonstrated a beautiful use of mixed colors on canvas.

It might be difficult for Dalton’s students to achieve such a level of mastery, given their fleeting time together.

“The population is constantly changing”says Dalton.

The constant fluctuation of students posed a challenge. Dalton often had to go back to basics when new artists entered his classes.

“Some of the paintings are never finished”,Dalton observes. “You never know when the Islamic State will recover (the detainees)”.

A unique piece was produced in fits and starts by several artists.

Dalton explains that the piece, an abstract swirl of bricks, flowers, stars and birds, was started by an inmate who was released before his artwork was complete.

“Two other inmates worked there and got out,”says Dalton.

Eventually, the original artist returned to the Freeborn County Detention Center as an inmate and completed the artwork himself.

Another of Dalton’s favorite pieces – a black and white work titled “Mexican Art”– was created by an inmate who was eventually deported to Mexico.

The man learned to draw during a two-year stay in prison. As an inmate at the Freeborn County Detention Center, he drew about 10 to 12 hours a day.

“This gentleman was a very calm and shy man, who did not realize the gift he has”,says Dalton.

Dalton’s stories continue to flow as he underlines piece after piece.

Pointing to a striking painting with a dark figure in the foreground, Dalton observes, “We talked about how to make bricks look like bricks.”

He explains that the artist of a whimsical tree, chiselled in charcoal, was a Russian man. He was recently deported to his home country.

“I hope he is not in Ukraine”,says Dalton.

“Unfinished Lives, Unfinished Art”he sighs, as he tucks the framed pieces between napkins, where they will sit, protected, until they are hung for display.


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