• Full Circle: Freedom through Creative Community

    I met Stan Hunter on my first visit to a prison in January 2013. At the time, Stan had been incarcerated for nearly 25 years. We worked together for the next six years, developing and sustaining an art program in the prison that has since expanded to a statewide project, the Prison Arts Collective. This past January, he was released after 30 years. Not long afterwards, I had the good fortune to hire him as a lead teaching artist in our program. I am grateful to share this conversation with Stan about his experience in and out of prison, his art, and what motivates him to continue to share it with others that are still behind bars.


    ANNIE BUCKLEY: I will never forget the day I walked in my office and saw a light flashing on my phone at the end of another long day on campus.  In recent months, you had told me about your preparations for parole and that you would soon get a release date. Then our teachers had let me know you were out. Something told me that the voicemail was from you and I picked it up and heard your voice. It was a really special and moving experience. Can you talk about making the call to me at the university? What was going on for you at the time?

    STAN HUNTER: I can remember the feeling like it was yesterday. I was so excited to call you and to let you know it had really happened — I was a free man! You were the first person I wanted to call because you were so instrumental in helping me overcome so many things in my personal life through the art program. I knew you would be just as excited as I was, to be out of prison. This meant the world to me. I knew that you genuinely cared. When I first met you and the faculty from CSUSB, I felt an instant connection because you actually listened and started looking at all the possibilities of creating an art program and helping the men inside bring about change in their lives through art.

    Not long after that day, I submitted paperwork to get you hired onto our staff as an interim employee. The background check took quite some time to complete and I was getting nervous waiting but we did finally receive an affirmative answer and were able to hire you, first as an interim staff member and now as a benefitted employee. What has it meant to you to be a member of the team from the inside and now a lead teaching artist outside? Was there anything that was vastly similar or different that surprised you? What have you learned?

    It has been an amazing experience being part of the PAC team, both on the inside and the outside. A little intimidating because I don’t feel as though I have the education that the other team members have. However, I have the experience of teaching mural and portrait painting and working with the incarcerated. I learn so much from the PAC Team and the participants. Leading the workshops is the only thing similar to what I had been doing all those years; everything else I do in my job is a new learning experience. Technology surprises me — I talk to my phone and things happen! Incredible! I’m learning so much every day, including how to use a computer and function in this environment at such a fast pace with emails, event planning, exhibitions, installations, etc. Just learning to coordinate with a team can be challenging at times. It’s the little things that one would even think about that make me stop and reflect. For example, getting a key to the work space was huge for me because I wasn’t allowed to touch a key for 30 years. I am so grateful for this experience and I’m doing what I love to do. I wouldn’t change it for the world.

    Photo by Peter Merts.

    Can you share something about what art meant to you on the inside? How did you come to start painting and why do you think it was so influential to you?

    Creating art became my escape from staring at the concrete walls. I started drawing cards for my kids to let them know that I loved and missed them. A friend of mine showed me how to use shadow and highlights to make the cards “pop” and to create depth, so my skills slowly started to develop. I used to get frustrated because I couldn’t achieve the affect I wanted but I stayed with it. Pretty soon, people were asking to buy my art and this really encouraged me to put more effort into it. I used to just sit back and study the pieces I was developing. Learning to take these paintings to a different level helped to build my self-esteem. Ironic because it was my low sense of self-worth that compelled me to try harder. I fell in love with shapes and color. There came a point in time when I realized that I didn’t need drugs to make it day by day; I just needed a paintbrush or color pencils. I consider this to be the pivotal point in transforming my life. I couldn’t wait to wake up in the morning to start painting or drawing. I was able to tap into this energy that made me feel more alive than ever before. I believe people often refer to it as “the Zone,” or “the flow.” It’s an amazing thing to experience.

    That is so powerful. Some people find a thing they like and go ahead and dive into it and do it. You found painting and, while you did dive in and achieve an incredible level of mastery, you also made a decision to teach others and went to great lengths to do that. Why did you make that decision? What drew you to continue throughout those years?

    I believe one reason that enabled me to take some of these pieces to the next level is, I’ve always struggled with low self-esteem and no sense of self-worth. Nothing was ever good enough. (I still struggle with this.) So I would always push myself to try to achieve certain effects. It became a personal challenge with myself. When I paint, I get into a very excited state of mind where time disappears. I instinctively knew that I was on to something because I wasn’t craving drugs to numb myself. I knew this was a gift that was given to me and I wanted to share this with others. I made the connection about my negative and critical internal dialog after reading a book on art. I realized that I kept playing the same old tapes over and over in my head, which sabotaged my efforts at finding a sense of balance emotionally. Art was helping me to change my thought process. Many of my friends and other incarcerated individuals were struggling with the same issues and I wanted to give them this so called “secret” that I’d discovered. At the same time, I was involved with therapy dealing with early childhood trauma, 12-step programs dealing with addictions and anger management, and workshops learning about effective communication. Creating art in a safe space is the perfect vehicle to accomplish all these things and more.

    Can you share a story or two about some of your students, how they responded to learning to paint or how they changed during the process?

    The first person that comes to mind is Ezequiel. When I first met him, he introduced himself to me with his moniker (street name). I asked him, “what is the name your mother gave you?” He replied “Ezequiel” and I told him, from now on, I will refer to you as Ezequiel. I was painting a mural in my cell and he asked me how much I would sell it for, I replied “It’s not for sale but I will teach you how to do it, if you are interested.” I showed him how to paint a yellow rose, to send home to his family. After a lot of effort and dedication, he became a great artist and also began teaching others. I have always shared my motto “Each one, teach one.” So when a person starts getting the hang of it, I have them pass on the knowledge and skills to someone else. I will start out telling new participants, bring me a photo of a loved one, we’re going to paint the portrait and send it to them.

    Photo by Peter Merts.

    That is so beautiful because, as you know, Ezekiel also knew my mom, back when he was in juvenile hall and she was a volunteer there. When I brought her to the prison early on in our program and he called out to her from across that vast prison gym, it was surreal. They took up where they left off, with him sharing his accomplishments and updates about his family with her each time she visited. When she passed last January, you and Ezekiel shared meaningful stories about her, some of which were shared at her service. I don’t think too many ‘white ladies from Hancock Park,’ as she would say, would have that experience. More recently, my niece Siena was interning with our program during a summer break from her studies in Social Work at NC State. When we visited the Chino prison, Ezekiel told her that her grandmother had changed his life and she teared up. It was a beautiful reminder of our connection beyond the walls of prisons and difference. You were released a year, nearly to the day, after she died. In that context, what was it like to meet and to work with Siena?

    First of all, your mother Alice was such an amazing person. She genuinely cared about all of us and we could feel it. In many cases this is what was missing in our lives. I instantly felt a strong connection to Siena because she was immediately so helpful right from the beginning, teaching me how to send emails and edit the Facilitators Handbook with tracking changes. I felt honored to be in the presence of someone committed to doing social work at such a young age. I can definitely see all the wonderful qualities and influence that both you and your mom embraced, in Siena. Such an inspiration to see three generations in the same family committed to bringing about change in the lives of those struggling. Siena is a born leader and will change many lives for sure.

    Some might imagine that, now that you are out, you would never want to go back inside. And yet you want to go back and continue to teach art to those who are incarcerated. What motivates you to continue along this journey?

    I feel like I’ve been able to overcome some of the most difficult challenges that inmates are faced with, including addiction, criminal thinking, anger issues, poor communication skills, and a dysfunctional lifestyle. I was fortunate enough to benefit from the many programs that CDCR offered and to find a way out of this mindset, using art as a vehicle to reconnect and feel part of a community. I want to bring what I’ve learned to as many people that I can, to help them become healthy and to rejoin their family and society as model citizens. I feel that I was given a gift for a purpose, to help others. After serving thirty years myself, I know a lot about what the incarcerated person thinks and feels. I believe I can reach them and help them transform their lives.

    Photo by Peter Merts.

    I feel extremely fortunate that we get to have you working with us now. I feel like you initiated this program with your teaching and desire to grow it. Also, you know the situation of our participants far better than most of our teachers do so you are really able to support the success and authenticity of the programming. How do you feel about your role in the program on this side of the wall?

    I feel it is my purpose in life to be of service to those who are incarcerated. I often find myself thinking that there are people who are more talented and educated than me, and have much more to offer. However, the one factor that is missing for them is knowing what the incarcerated person thinks and feels, the daily struggles and how to deal with them. I am able to communicate with them on a different level. They don’t take offense to my direct and outspoken approach because it comes from experience in overcoming the same obstacles they are facing. I use painting and drawing as a vehicle to build the encouragement and support in dealing with the deeper issues that they need to address. This is where the real work is, in dealing with the trauma they have experienced, learning about empathy and forgiveness. Having a purpose in life is the best motivating force to overcome past trauma and our daily obstacles. The Prison Arts Collective is committed to transforming lives through Art.  It is an honor and privilege to be in this role, I am very grateful to you, Annie Buckley!

    Photo by Peter Merts.

    Not long after you started working with us, an application we had submitted to teach a workshop at the UCLA conference, Connecting Art and Law for Liberation, was accepted and you joined that teaching team. It was really moving to me to teach with you at UCLA. There was something incredible about being in front of the room with you, talking about the program, without any barriers or uniforms or officers. What was it like for you?

    Initially I was very nervous because I was at UCLA teaching a workshop and I felt like a fish out of water. But after we got started and I realized it was the same thing I had been doing for years, though from prison, I was able to relax and everything started to feel perfectly natural. The reality of it all finally hit me during the second workshop, after I had been standing up front at the podium, and I started to get very emotional because we were there together. You had helped me so much through the years and I realized that this was really happening: I’m working as a teaching artist for the Prison Arts Collective out in the free world with Annie. It was something that I had always hoped for but didn’t know if it was possible. In regards to the absence of uniforms and barriers, for years I couldn’t give a hug to any of the PAC team members in appreciation for their service to us. Finally, I was able to relax and hug the very people who brought so much joy and promise to a very dark place. I could stand close enough to engage in a face-to-face conversation without a uniform getting suspicious about over familiarity, a policy in prisons about not getting too close to visitors. I respect it and actually enforce it as a peer leader in the program but it was nice to let it relax outside the walls.

    More recently, you and I visited Sacramento for a meeting with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) Innovative Grant Program. At that meeting, you had the chance to shake the hand of CDCR Secretary Ralph Diaz. What was it like to stand with the man in charge of this system, as a free person shaking his hand?

    Yes, I was able to shake the hand of Secretary Diaz. What an amazing experience — just think that, only a couple of months earlier, I was treated like a criminal, not to be trusted. To hear the Secretary of Corrections tell me to my face that it was an honor to meet me, and that he valued my commitment to go back into the institutions to be of service to these men, really meant a lot to me. I felt that he was sincere and genuine and committed to Rehabilitation. I was also able to meet Undersecretary of Operations for CDCR, Kathleen Allison. For the first time in 30 years, I truly felt like the top administrative officials were committed to helping change the lives of the incarcerated through effective programming. The meeting I was invited to included program providers who enter into the prisons to bring us programs. They met to develop effective approaches to accomplish their goals. I was sitting in the same room with the very people who helped me to change my life.

    I also spoke with Undersecretary Allison on several other occasions at The Arts in Corrections Conference in June. I look forward to contributing in any way I can towards building the Arts in Corrections Program in the Future.

    Yes, it was an incredible conference, put on by California Lawyers for the Arts, and it was so great to attend with you and others in our group. The Prison Arts Collective had the chance to facilitate workshops for conference goers as part of a special visit to Alcatraz Island to see social practice artist Gregory Sales’s collaborative project, “Future IDs.” I invited you and others that were formerly incarcerated to take the lead on facilitating those workshops. What was it like for you to teach a drawing workshop with our team to the very people that go into prisons regularly and lead arts classes, some of whom you knew when you were inside?

    Our team was incredibly supportive on all fronts. I was excited about developing workshops for Alcatraz because I wanted these teachers to take them back to their institutions and provide them to the Juvenile Halls and Prisons. Going into Alcatraz prison was an experience all its own, as I was able to imagine myself sitting in the same cells under very harsh conditions. I had an amazing time, teaching a drawing workshop to other teachers. When I thought about it, they first taught me and, as I developed my style of approaching art, I learned to teach others. I promote the ideal that “Each one, teach one” when I facilitate classes, as I want everyone to experience the gift of creating art and finding their voice.

    Stan Hunter, leading drawing workshop with Prison Arts Collective in collaboration with Future IDs on Alcatraz.

    You are also an incredibly skilled artist! I will never forget the first painting I saw of yours, in which you had assiduously replicated each crease and nick of the page in painting an image of Da Vinci’s The Last Supper that you found in a National Geographic. And now this piece is included in an exhibition that I curated for Pitzer College Art Galleries opening September 14, 2019 (Disruption! Art and the Prison Industrial Complex). I am really excited to have the chance to help you share that piece with a wide audience. Did you ever imagine it would exist in a gallery space in that way? Was that ever your intention?

    No, I never dreamt that any of my art would ever be in a Gallery space, where others would be able to view it, much less appreciate it. For years, it was stored under the bed at home, or collecting dust in a closet. When I started The Last Supper, several people told me to paint something of my own. But I wanted to challenge myself to replicate one of the greatest paintings of all time. It was a personal thing that I needed to do for myself. Now I just want to find the time to finish it! My intention was to develop prints so that people could have it in their dining rooms.

    Stan Hunter, The Last Supper, 2006-present, acrylic on canvas, 39”x 59” unframed.

    Do you plan to continue painting? What are you working on now, in your own art and your work with the program?

    Absolutely, I have to paint! There’s nothing that gives me more pleasure than painting. I have to create and express myself on canvas. I’m currently brainstorming ideas for a traveling mural exhibit. I would love to get several teams together at the sites we visit and inspire them to develop themes for a traveling mural exhibit that brings awareness to a wide range of issues that directly impact our lives. I’m just finishing a portrait of Pope Francis to donate to “Healing Hearts, Restoring Hope”, which focuses on working with those affected by homicide. I hope to finish The Last Supper this year.

    Wait, it isn’t finished? (Laughs)

    It will be!

    Photo by Ashley Woods.