Editor’s note: Additional details have been added to clarify the collaboration between programs at the Sealaska Corporation and Sealaska Heritage Institute.
At first, Kenny Smith started making artwork out of boredom. The days are long and there’s not much to do at Lemon Creek Correctional Center.
Smith, who was behind bars for nine years before being released this past week, began going to the prison’s hobby (art) shop a few years ago just to have something to do. He made little boxes and simple items, sometimes sending them to his mother in Wasilla.
Thanks to the rejuvenation of the prison’s art program the past couple years, though, Smith, 44, has been able to take classes and create pieces he never thought he’d make. Four days before his release from prison, Smith showed off a paddle he had made. It was complete with painted faces and abalone shells embedded in the wood.
The art isn’t just for show. The Sealaska Corporation sponsors the carving program, in collaboration with art classes offered through Sealaska Heritage Institute’s Haa Latseen Community Project, and takes many of the pieces the artists create and donates them. The paddles, masks and other pieces go to nonprofits all over Southeast, where they are auctioned off to raise money for the organizations.
Bill Bennett, the manager of the Sealaska carving program, said the artwork (no matter how good it is) all finds a spot with one of more than a dozen nonprofits throughout the area. Bennett said one nonprofit that particularly appreciates the donations is Helping Ourselves Prevent Emergencies (HOPE) on Prince of Wales Island, helps support victims of personal or domestic violence.
LCCC Superintendent Bob Cordle said Smith’s original charge was second-degree sexual assault, and that Smith was in prison this time because of a parole violation related to that original charge. Smith said the fact that his art is going to organizations like HOPE is giving him a chance at redemption in a way.
“It definitely gives us an opportunity to give back to the communities that guys like me …”
Smith trailed off, clearing his throat and looking away for a moment.
“I get a little bit emotional,” he said. “It gives me an opportunity to give back to the kind of people that maybe I hurt in the past.”
That day, the hobby shop at LCCC was full of activity. Ray Watkins, a master carver who teaches classes for SHI, was there teaching a class on what are called articulated raven masks. With these masks, the beak opens and closes as the person wearing it moves. One of the masks on the worktable had a blue bead dangling from a string that hung near the beak and made it look like the raven was eating a blueberry as the beak moved.
The last time Watkins had been in there, he had taught more basic mask-making techniques. Now, he was ramping up the difficulty. Those in the class, about 10 of them, were either working on the articulating masks or on their own side projects. Watkins mentioned that some of them were very artistic before then ended up at the prison, but added that he was impressed with how quickly many of the others had learned.
Their work can be seen around the prison and the community. Not all of the pieces go to Sealaska. Bennett comes over a couple times a week from his office in Klawock, bringing wood for the program. Bennett gives two pieces of wood to inmates — or residents, as he prefers to say — one for the program and one for themselves. For example, when Smith gets the wood, he carves one paddle for Sealaska and one for himself. With the personal paddle, he can keep it or mail it to someone.
He can also give it to the prison to sell. When you enter the prison, before you get to the check-in area, you’ll see a large display case on your left. That case, which was made by the artists in the hobby shop, holds pieces of their art as well. There are masks, rattles, paddles or various other items, and they’re all for sale.
Part of the proceeds for those pieces, Assistant Superintendent Daryl Webster said, is required to go to court fines, restitution, child support or other court-mandated fees. The rest of it can be sent to family or put in an account for the inmates to keep.
“You don’t make a bunch of money down there,” Smith said, “but you definitely make a few dollars and it helps you stay going.”
With Smith being released this past week, he sent most of his artwork to his mother because he didn’t have a place to keep it once he got out. His favorite piece, he said, is a paddle with a frog carved and painted on it. His mother, he said, loves frogs and she was impressed with his piece.
Some of the pieces have also impressed bidders at auctions for nonprofits, Bennett said. Most of pieces sell for fairly affordable prices, he said, but a bentwood box from LCCC once sold for more than $5,000 in an auction to benefit Haa Aaní Economic Development.
That’s by far the most any of the artwork has sold for, Bennett said, but money from those auctions helps fuel nonprofits that are in need of funding.
Bennett has also seen it affect the lives of the inmates after they are released. Smith said he isn’t sure if he’ll continue doing art, but he said he’s going to continue to devote his time to help others. Whether it’s working with Bennett to help haul wood or operate the program somehow, or whether it’s finding a nonprofit locally, he said he wants to find a way to help out.
Bennett said he has seen people changed for the better after going through the program. One man, he said, was walking by the Sealaska building in Juneau and spotted Bennett. He told Bennett the carving skills he learned in the prison helped him find a job and earn income for his family after getting out. The exchange was so heartfelt, Bennett said, that he had tears in his eyes as he walked back to his office afterward.
“It’s a wonderful thing,” Bennett said. “I believe it’s making a difference, not only with that young man that had gotten out and talked with me outside the building, but also with these organizations. With funding being cut back on all fronts, it keeps them doing their good work that they do.”
• Contact reporter Alex McCarthy at 523-2271 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @akmccarthy.