An ant, an apple and the prisoners

“I only saw what they let me [think I] see” – Lyrics by Bob Dylan

In a high-security men’s prison art class where I am a volunteer art teacher, I show the students a crude drawing consisting of two simple lines; one line depicts a circle and the other is a short line extending from its top. When I ask, “What is this?” the class is confused, assuming my question is a trick. Everyone can clearly see the simple drawing represents an apple.

But representation is a funny thing. I point out that the contour lines representing the apple are something no apple possesses. Holding up a spray-painted white apple, I demonstrate there are no lines designating the edges of the apple. In fact, if any student – Nathan, Bradley, or whoever – was to discover himself as an ant walking the surface of the apple looking for those lines, he would traverse the perimeter of the apple into infinity and never find them.

When the class finally does draw the white apple, I ask them to imagine themselves as an ant. Despite the few giggles and Beau rolling his eyes – as if to suggest it’s bad enough to be a prisoner, now he’s a prisoner-ant – I continue describing their ant-state; asking them to experience walking upon the infinite planes of this apple that knows no line.

I suggest when their tiny ant feet get too tired from sticking to the sides of the apple, they can crawl to the top of the apple where they will find a concave out of which the stem grows. In this hollow, light is not harsh as it is on the curved planes of the apple where light hits. I tell Daryl – who isn’t quite buying what I say – that he can rest in the hollow until he continues his journey to the dark side of the apple. It is on the dark side that Daryl will discover reflective light. I warn the class that reflective light can be dangerous to the novice artist who does not know that it is always secondary to primary light. Instead (and what I so often see in the students’ drawings) reflective light is drawn as strong as primary light. When this happens, all light is destroyed. I see this in the prisoners’ tattoos where, in their attempts to demonstrate light, they undermine it. When the students get defensive to my criticism of their tattoos, I break the rule against touching a prisoner’s arm, demanding; “Where exactly is the light source in this tattoo?!”

But of course, my class of prisoners rarely draws from life. What they know of drawing is copying photographs, making them experts of a flat world where all light has been averaged to sameness and dimension of form is eliminated. The drawings I see are more about language and accepted signification of the visual than an exploration of the immediate, tangible world through the senses.

For instance, the portraits drawn by my student from photos are more hieroglyphics than visual understanding of the complexity of the face. I tell the class they might as well write the letters, E-Y-E, across the top of an oval, leave space; then write again E-Y-E for their portraits. The almond shapes eyes that the class has drawn are as much language as the word e-y-e. Both the letters and the prisoner’s hieroglyphics do not describe the sphere of an eyeball lodged into an eye socket stretched under skin unified into larger forms creating the face. My students only know the features of the face through the veil of language or symbols that has been described to them. They do not see the flesh and bones of the face and, therefore, they are limited to repeating mental pictures; again and again and again.


In another prison class, Rodrigo is drawing the still life I arranged of daisies in a vase. Rodrigo draws what appears to be a happy daisy with its full face and symmetrical petals directed at the viewer. The stem is perfectly vertical from a vase that floats in the middle of the paper. As I look from the drawing to the actual still life, I can’t help but express my confusion, asking Rodrigo, “How did you get one happy daisy from three, almost dead daisies slumped over the side of a vase that is clearly sitting on the table?”

While someone might suggest Rodrigo created a happy interpretation of the still life, it is not an interpretation. An interpretation demands that Rodrigo first see the daisy and seeing is not what Rodrigo did when he drew the daisy. He drew the daisy from a mental picture, and therefore, substitutes language, albeit simple notation, for the still life.

When Rodrigo is stunned by my question, I sit next to him and together we explore what he sees in comparison to what I see. First I ask concrete questions such as; how many daisies do you see; how are they in the vase – questions that could be answered by anyone from any angle looking at the still life. Then I ask questions in which the answers will differ depending upon where we sit in relation to the still life; how much of the front of the daisy do you see; where is the light falling from your view and so on. When Rodrigo redraws the still life, he creates a completely different drawing; a much more sophisticated one. He sees where the light is falling, he sees the shadow; he sees the daisies slumped over. It doesn’t take much to teach him – just probing to see the world through his own eyes instead of learned mental pictures.

This criticism of my prisoners’ drawings could seem harsh, but I don’t go to prison for art therapy or rehabilitation. I don’t expect my students to change; we are always the same person and never the same person; always moving in change for which we have little control.

My question for going into prison, which is the same for anyone learning how to draw, is do we experience the world differently when over-prescribed labels are abandoned in favor of actually seeing the world? Instead of rule-bound concepts defining the objects – this is an apple, a table, a tree and so on – can we see the phenomenal relationships; light and shadow, near and far, up and down, soft and hard; bright and dull? Relationships that are always changing and never static?

But most of my students are dependent upon things and concepts to draw. When I ask them to draw from life, they complain, “There’s nothing to draw here.” Solitary confinement offers even less to draw. However when I ask Manuel, a participant in my through-the-mail-art project and living in solitary confinement, to observe light in his cell and then draw that light, he writes:

“Inside the cell, I could see that the light and dark tones are not flat. I’ve noticed the light and dark patterns near the windows. The areas around the windows are extremely dark, but the area where the light comes from the window is bright…….The window light reflecting on the concrete bed has a very bright light tone and there is no light in the darkness surrounding this light.”

Manuel continues to describe the different light and shadow patterns for the next five paragraphs of his letter. He then develops a drawing from this exploration of what to an unobserving eye is just an empty room.

The difference between a thing as concept from a dynamic phenomenal relationship is described by Danny during an in-prison class, “Tonight when I fall asleep, my mantra will be; it is not an apple; it is light and shadow.”

Bob Dylan sings, “I only saw what they let me see,” and I wonder to what extent everyone is blind. Like Rodrigo, I have painted four-petaled flowers when five-petaled ones were clearly in front of me; operating in a predestined autopilot depiction that isn’t mine. I discovered my blindness in art school.

Esther, a retired psychologist, exclaimed, “I saw the world so differently after I took a drawing class.” And Joe, a recent graduate of art school, described that he “moved differently” after learning how to draw; suggesting drawing is a full body activity.

But phenomenological drawing is more than seeing the world; it is a conversation with that world. When Cezanne says, “The landscape speaks to me,” he suggests drawing is more listening than expression.

What would happen if drawing the world was the way of living it – a way of getting to know one another; not through concepts of status, personal facts, occupation, history, but upon actually seeing the other person? What do we see when we look at someone without conceptual prejudgment? Do we – in the visual exploration of the planes of the face with eyes set in the sockets stretched beneath the skin – see more? And if, as Cezanne suggests, drawing is means for listening, what will we hear when we visually explore this face? Could this be a world where that face of another becomes the place of infinite discovery irreducible to simple lines and prejudicial concepts?