A remarkable project has taken shape inside of the Lemon Creek Correctional Center (LCCC). The Sealaska Heritage Institute (SHI) initiated the Haa Latseen Community Project in 2015 with a pilot project that had a goal to bring the necessary tools and instruction for those who are incarcerated to try their hands at art.
Since then, a floodgate of artistic creativity has been opened to a range of talented artists whose work might have otherwise never been seen. In the spring of last year, SHI received a $100,000 Our Town grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. These grants are set up to support creative placemaking projects. SHI’s plan was to use the $100,000 award to create the Haa Latseen Community project.
“The goal is to connect potentially vulnerable tribal members to their culture, help them transition from incarceration to release and to provide skills that will help supplement their income,” said SHI President Rosita Worl in a May 2016 press release.
Some questions were raised on whether this is a project SHI should pour their resources into, but the real life outcomes from Haa Latseen were unmistakably positive.
“There was some concern that SHI would be giving incarcerated artists an unfair advantage in our art sales market compared to artists who never did anything wrong and are trying to make a living from art. We tried to address this by not only offering the series of arts and business trainings in prison but also to artists in the community. It’s also important to know that any income made by an incarcerated artist helps them pay back to the community. Funds go towards paying restitution, child support and other debt and help them save a little bit of funds so that they are not starting completely from zero when they reenter the community, giving them a better chance of staying out of prison. So by supporting them we also support our community and everyone is better off.”
The first Haa Latseen carving classes were taught by Ray Watkins and consisted of two 40-hour carving workshops. There have also been visits from Donald Gregory who teaches a two-day workshop once a month.
“You know it wouldn’t have been possible to do the Lemon Creek part of the program if it wasn’t for the staff at Lemon Creek. This program completely depends on their help because a lot of the logistics around the classes can only be implemented by them. It really feels like they believe in the value of the program and doing what they can to make it as effective as possible.”
In addition to LCCC and their Education Team’s involvement with this program, there is the Alaska State Council on the Arts (ASCA) which has partnered up with SHI under the National Endowment for the Arts Our Town grant to bring more knowledge into the prison. ASCA’s Community and Native Arts Program Director Saunders McNeill’s business classes inside of LCCC were the true start of this site-specific program. McNeill’s two, two-day workshops (one for men and one for women) served 22 participants. Each participant received a workbook that informs them on how to create a small business to sell the art they produce.
Recently she also took the time to return to the facility to spend an hour of one-on-one time with any of the participating inmates that wanted to meet with her. Since not all inmates are eligible to participate in the carving workshops, the business workshop opened the door for a wider range of people.
“Saunders said that when she spoke to those who had participated in the arts training, it was clear how much they appreciated the arts instructors Donald Gregory and Ray Watkins. Not only for the knowledge and skills they have shared but also for their generosity,” Groven said.
Gregory has personally contributed to this program and often brings in his own wood and abalone for the inmates to use in their pieces.
“I’m just thankful for the opportunity to go in and share with them,” Gregory said in a press release. “I’m passing on what other people have taught me, and I’m happy to show them what I know.” Passing on knowledge is one of the obligations the carvers themselves signed up for, and Gregory said he can already see that happening, as carvers share knowledge among the group.
Aaron Phillips is currently an inmate in the Lemon Creek Correctional Center and has taken every opportunity that SHI and ASCA have offered since being transferred to LCCC.
“Everything that they’ve brought to us I try to utilize,” Phillips said. “I learned there’s (the Silver Hand) program through Saunders McNeill. … She’s just such a wealth of knowledge and such an advocate for new artists.”
If accepted into the Silver Hand program all work created by that artist will receive the Silver Hand seal and will be proof to any consumer that their artwork is authentic, handmade Alaska Native Art.
Throughout his time at LCCC, Phillips has attended every single workshop offered. The workshops exist for any inmate who is approved to use what’s called the hobby shop.
“There are people who are authorized to use the hobby shop and there is a waitlist of people who will become authorized, I’m not sure why they aren’t currently authorized but all of them, any of them, those who are authorized and those on the waitlist, can take these classes,” LCCC Education Coordinator Paul McCarthy said.
The Haa Aani carving program run by Bill Bennett provides the wood. In return Haa Aani receives one out of every two pieces that come out of LCCC and then donates that piece to charity. Groven mentioned that Bennett estimates that the program has raised “10’s of thousands if not more.”
“It’s a way for us to give back to the community. I think that’s very important,” Phillips said.
“I was so used to just taking, taking, taking from the community, it’s much different to be giving back.”
They may do whatever they please with the other piece that they create. In Phillips’ case he’s sold all of them to SHI who now offers them at their store. Although Philips was intimidated when he first tried carving in one of the workshops a mere eight months ago, he was encouraged by other inmate artists to give it a try. Phillips also said he has a natural inclination to learn new things whenever he is able to. He went from not even knowing he could carve to discovering how important carving is to him. The workshops have also given him insight on his culture and a fire to discover more about what his heritage is.
“I never really thought about my culture until I came down here and started carving and painting,” Phillips said. When Gregory comes in to teach he always tells the stories behind what pieces they are working on. “When we were carving the halibut hooks he’s telling us what the story is behind the hooks and how they came to be and it’s just interesting cause this isn’t my culture or heritage. I’m Aleut and just listening to the stories behind everything they come in and show us is pretty amazing.”
From the urging of McNeill, and from the newfound interest given by his immersion into the local Native Alaskan culture during the workshops, Phillips ordered two books from the Alutiiq Museum in Kodiak to help him better understand his culture and the artwork surrounding it. He wants to try his best to recreate his own version of the ancient masks from his area.
The group of artists that spends time in the hobby shop have become what Phillips calls a “tight-knit group” that are all willing to share and build off of each other.
“You know I really appreciate it, because being in the hobby shop sure takes my mind off of being in here,” Phillips said. “And my time is much better used now. Its really easy going. … There’s no stress, it’s just time for you, just to do your thing.”
Phillips believes that his passion for carving will carry though with him even after his release and says that overall his experience with the workshops has taught him patience, and he will continue to carve.
For the parallel strand of Haa Latseen Community Project arts and business classes SHI partnered with the Tlingit-Haida Regional Housing Authority, who helped reach out to low income housing residents, and also the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes Second Chance Program who helped reach out to artists at Gastineau Human Services.
Supplementing the already hefty list of supporters, the project is also supported by the Juneau Arts and Humanities Council, the City and Borough of Juneau, and Juneau Re-entry Coalition.
“(All) the teachers have been blown away by how grateful the participants are just to get to do this, to do any of this. There are some really talented people in there. It’s a little too early to know what will be the long-term impact of this, but we’re hoping that the participants, with their increased artistic skills and business skills, and having built stronger personal and business connections in the community, will have a better chance of getting up and running when they are released and not go back into prison,” Groven said. “I think all of us working on this feel like what we are doing can make a real difference.”
The first round of the program is ending October 2017 and the second round is estimated to begin in January 2018.
Mackenzie Fisher is a freelance writer living in Juneau.