Phyllis Kornfeld has worked as an art instructor inside correctional facilities around the country for more than 35 years. Kornfeld has brought art to the incarcerated at all levels of security, from county jail to death row. 

Kornfeld’s work with incarcerated men and women inspired her new book, Cellblock Visions: Prison Art in America, which features a collection of their artwork made behind bars.  

Zydalis Bauer spoke with Kornfeld to learn how she became involved with teaching art in correctional institutions and to hear more about the impact that the creative arts can have on the incarcerated. 

This story originally aired on May 27, 2021.


Read the full transcript:

Zydalis Bauer, Connecting Point: For over 35 years, Phyllis Kornfeld has worked as an art instructor inside correctional facilities around the country in all levels of security, from county jail to death row.

Her book, entitled Cellblock Visions: Prison Art in America, was inspired by her work with incarcerated men and women and features a collection of their artwork made behind bars.

I spoke with Kornfeld to learn how she became involved with teaching art in correctional institutions and to hear more about the impact that the creative arts can have on the incarcerated.

Phyllis Kornfeld, Cellblock Visions Author: I’m talking about what I call true creativity. Which means it’s not the frontal lobe telling me what art should look like or if I can do this or if I can do that. It’s work that comes from a very deep place in a person.

The visuals that I — that have come to me over the years, is this sort of fiery coil deep in every human being. That humanity, all through history, people have been wanting and creating beauty and wanting to create beauty.

Among people who are incarcerated, they have very low self-esteem. They have heard nothing but negativity about themselves. They’ve been traumatized. It has just kept that beautiful human capacity imprisoned.

What I do is, I don’t reach in to pull it out. What I do is disappear all of the obstructions and then bam, it’s out. And that’s what you see in all the artwork.

Zydalis Bauer: And I want to touch on that point of that natural human, you know, creativity that we all have inside of us. Because you’ve stated that unplugging is your primary function as an art teacher, and it kind of helps these artists realize that this is something that’s within them.

So, what are your ways or techniques that you use for students that you have that might be hesitant to get them to begin creating art?

Phyllis Kornfeld: Well, the first of all, the circumstances are there are very strict rules in my class. One of them is they’re not allowed to speak personally. A lot of people think that’s horrible. But they talk about themselves and their lives and their crimes and their misery and and all of that all the time. They’re not allowed to speak it out loud in the art class.

So, immediately the ego is quieted and they’re in a place of not knowing. They also are not permitted to express negativity. That’s not about the art, but it’s about their speech and their — even their physical posture.

And we don’t talk, we don’t speak casually in art class. So immediately, the only thing there is to do, is to create this art.

For example, one man did a landscape, but he did it unsurely and quickly. I sent him back to spend more time on it. By the time he brought it in, it was quite beautiful. The man was holding the piece in his hands and crying. He was crying and saying, “I can’t believe I did this. I can’t believe I did this.”

And that’s — that’s purpose number two, is for people to realize, to learn a part of themselves that they never knew existed.

Zydalis Bauer: After spending over thirty-five years working with inmates. What do you think is important for people to know and understand about this population?

Phyllis Kornfeld: Well, I think people need to take a look at the whole system. James Gilligan is a psychiatrist. His job was to interview the most violent offenders in federal prisons.

He told me he always gets the same answer to the same question is “why did you do it?” And he didn’t mean the childhood abuse and that kind of thing. He meant that moment. Why did you do it? They said “because I was disrespected.”

And the other quote from James Gilligan is that “all violence is an attempt to replace shame with self-esteem.” So, I think people are beginning to understand that.

I believe we realize that punishment, punishment stimulates violence. It doesn’t help anything. I don’t know where we got the idea in the first place, in the early days, that if you punish someone, they’ll stop doing it because it never it never worked.