Bringing Art to Inmates

schmitt shoots!!
John Pusateri, a senior in the College of Visual and Performing Arts, displays artwork created in a printmaking workshop he taught at a state correctional facility.

John Pusateri ’01 spreads the gospel of art in places where creative expression can free minds from the restrictive routines of daily life. For six straight Saturdays last spring, Pusateri climbed into his car and drove an hour-and-a-half north to the Cape Vincent (New York) Correctional Facility, where he taught a monotype printmaking workshop for a group of inmates. This spring he plans to continue his work with inmates. “I enjoy teaching and am interested in giving people the opportunity to use their creativity,” says Pusateri, a printmaking major in the College of Visual and Performing Arts. “I provide them with time to get their minds off being in prison.”
      Pusateri decided to organize the workshops last year, after accompanying African American studies professor Micere Githae Mugo and fellow student David Floyd ’01 to several prisons in northern New York as part of a literature outreach program. “We each read a poem or a piece of literature that would allow the inmates to realize that, although they’re physically incarcerated, they don’t have to be mentally or creatively confined,” he says.
      Pusateri also talked about printmaking at the readings, and the inmates’ interest inspired him to set up a workshop through the New York State Department of Corrections’ volunteer services program. With Mugo’s support, he established contacts in the volunteer program and explored the requirements for creating a workshop. “I invite students to join me in community activism, and John took up the challenge,” says Mugo, who taught Pusateri in two courses. “He’s an excellent student—attentive, self-motivated, industrious. His insights in class discussions were always perceptive.”
      Before receiving approval for the workshop, Pusateri persevered through numerous phone calls and substantial paperwork. He submitted a resumé, syllabus, and supply list; passed a medical test; and fared well in an interview. “It’s a big commitment,” says Mary Regan, a regional supervisor of correctional volunteer services. “But John likes what he does and wants to share it. He’s very dedicated.”
      Pusateri turned the volunteer work into an honors thesis project this semester, writing about the experience and organizing the inmates’ artwork into a catalog. Initially, however, he just wanted to teach inmates and show them he was willing to give them a chance. He received funding for supplies and travel expenses from the Honors Program and the Undergraduate Research Program, which presented him with a Ruth Meyer Undergraduate Research Award; and the Community Folk Art Gallery loaned him an etching press. “The driving was pretty tiresome, but well worth it,” he says. “I got a lot out of the workshops and feel the inmates did as well. Some of the work they created is really nice.”
      During the three-hour workshops, Pusateri introduced the eight participating inmates to different methods of printmaking, working with water-soluble crayons and oil paints. Some were skilled, knowledgeable artists; others were just learning to express themselves artistically. They produced an eclectic mix of prints—a rose with a hovering bee, a portrait of revolutionary leader Che Guevara, and a waterfall scene, for example. “I don’t think I brought out any talents they had,” he says. “But I did open up the time for them to release their talents.”
      In his own art, Pusateri, who worked last summer at a printmaking studio in his native Pittsburgh, produces abstract works and pieces that examine social issues and injustices. This semester his work was featured in two local exhibitions and a Pittsburgh show. He is also a skilled outdoor enthusiast who led whitewater rafting, mountain climbing, and cycling trips at a Pennsylvania summer camp for several years. In his first three years at SU, he volunteered as a reading tutor. Like the printmaking workshops, Pusateri sees such activities as opportunities to enjoy two of his passions—teaching and working with others. “I like people, and it makes me feel more at home being involved with the community,” he says. “I try to be socially conscious and understand what different people’s perspectives are.”
                                                                                                                                                                          —JAY COX

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