Art by GHS inmates

Posted: Monday, January 26, 2004

"Man Becomes Hawk," a carved mask by Juneau artist James Flake, is an angry piece of art, Flake said.

"I was kind of mad when I made it, and you can see it from the flow on the mask," he said, pointing to the deep red and black colors below the eyes of the mask.

For Flake, the mask is more than a piece of art. In the 18 years since he was sent to prison, art has been a way for him to release his frustration and stay sane, he said.

Flake and six other current and former residents of the halfway house at Gastineau Human Services held an art show at the Friendly Planet Trading Company Friday night.

Many of the artists learned their skills at the Lemon Creek Correctional Center or at the woodworking workshop at the halfway house. They sell their work to local stores and galleries, but most had never presented in an exhibit before.

"I was so nervous," said carver Charles Beck, wearing a "Native Pride" hat and standing beside wooden oars and masks with Native-inspired paintings and copper inlays.

The show offered Beck his first opportunity to hang his work in a gallery-like setting. Seeing the art on display and listening to the comments of guests at the show gave him ideas for future pieces and made him consider some changes to the work he's already done.

"It's nice to have more than one person to talk to about these things," he said.

Jim Demers, the education coordinator for Gastineau Human Services, estimated that at least 50 people had attended the show within the first half-hour of its opening.

Demers organized the show because many of the self-taught artists had shown their work only to other residents of the halfway house.

"I wanted to find an avenue for them to sell their work, to get this work to the public," he said.

Marianne Barton, a GHS case manager who works at the prison, was proud to see some of her former clients showing their art to Juneau.

"I saw them at first, and a couple of them had never touched art or anything," she said. "And now they're here. It's just great."

The art is a way for inmates to express themselves, something that often doesn't come easy in prison, Barton said.

"And look at the art they have here - it's expressions galore," she said.

Tim Bergman, who was selling dozens of boxes crafted out of hemlock, yellow cedar, walnut and oak, started carving while in prison as a way to do something for himself, he said.

His boxes were painted with traditional killer whale, raven and eagle designs, and he eagerly shared his knowledge of Native art with guests.

"The 'Lovebirds' design, with the raven and eagle together, didn't come about until after World War II," he said. "Before that they were never together."

Richmond Kelly, co-owner of Friendly Planet, opened his store for the show simply because Demers and Greag Pease, executive director of GHS, asked, he said.

"It's that whole second chance issue," he said. "Most of us appreciate that because we've all needed one."

Demers hopes to have a GHS show once every three months, he said.

Beck, who was up until 5 a.m. the morning of the show finishing a piece of art, was exhausted, he said. But compliments from visitors to the show gave him the encouragement he needed to create more pieces.

"This show has given me a deep appreciation for my art that I don't think I had before," Beck said. "I'm very proud of myself, and I can't wait to get back to the shop."

• Christine Schmid can be reached at

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