Art Unguarded: Incarcerated Artists Raise $14,000 for YWCA

By Molly Gilmore

Sometimes humanity hits like a ton of bricks.

Artists behind bars and community volunteers banded together last month to raise thousands of dollars to help homeless people and survivors of domestic violence. Artists in correctional centers across the state donated more than 200 of their creations — from paintings and sculpture to jewelry and beadwork — for the second Art Unguarded Auction, a benefit for the YWCAs in Pierce, King and Snohomish counties.

“This event spotlights the good that is happening inside prison,” said auction organizer Kim Beckham of the Department of Corrections. “The men and women inside our fences know what is happening in our communities and want to help.” The artists didn’t just donate their work, she said; they and other inmates and formerly incarcerated people were key to the event, which raised an estimated $14,000 for the YWCA’s emergency shelters and domestic violence programs.

“It’s really about community helping community,” said Beckham, who works as a reentry navigator. “I wouldn’t have been able to do this event if it weren’t for the community planning team. We had 45 volunteers step up to help us run the event, and at least half of them were previously incarcerated. The fact that they were there helping was so touching.”

Two inmates in Cedar Creek Corrections Center, in Littlerock, came up with the idea for the first Art Unguarded Auction, held in 2018. James Resop and Stacy Dockins both approached Beckham, who was when working at Cedar Creek, with the idea of raising money for hurricane relief in the wake of Irma, Harvey and Maria. “James is not an artist, but his heart was broken as the hurricanes tore through a part of Texas where his extended family resided,” she said. “Stacy had the idea about the art show.”

“I’ve been blessed myself,” Dockins said. “There were times when I’ve needed things, and a lot of people came out to help and did things for my family. … I want to pass it on.” Initially, he suggested a small event to be held in the dayroom at Cedar Creek, but the idea soon grew into a statewide benefit that raised $11,845 for the American Red Cross. People in institutions from across the state donated art, and others helped Beckham write the project proposal.

Stacy Dockins, an artist and inmate at Cedar Creek Corrections Center, displays his portrait of Barack Obama

“We who are confined are not unaware of the world outside of prison,” wrote James Pyles, an inmate at Larch Corrections Center in Yacolt. “And like people on the other side of the prison’s fences, we are touched by the images we see. But unlike those outside of prison walls, we can’t pick up a phone and give to our favorite charity or volunteer with a local outreach group. Though our imprisonment is the product of our own selfish choices, we nevertheless feel compassion in the face of others suffering. We, too, want to help.”

“For the first part of my life, I did enough bad stuff and made victims out of people and left enough bad steps behind me,” said Carmel Garipee, who donated his traditional Native American beadwork to the effort. “For the second half of my life, I want to try to right as many wrongs as I can and create as many positive circumstances as I can, so when I do finally meet the creator, I have righted some of these wrongs.”

A portrait of Aretha Franklin, painted by an inmate at the Cedar Creek Corrections Center

The second Art Unguarded — produced with support from United HealthCare Community Plan, Pierce County Community Partnership for Transition Services, Numbers2Names and the Washington State Combined Fund Drive — featured pieces created by artists from 11 of the state’s 12 prisons, Progress House Work Release and Pierce County Juvenile Court. “The artists were excited to choose the YWCA because of the important work it does,” Beckman said.

“The YWCA Pierce County is thrilled to benefit from this fundraiser because it focuses on healing and empowerment,” said Miriam Barnett, the organization’s CEO. “We have always believed in the power of the arts as a way to express what is going on inside someone’s soul. The arts provide inspiration and courage, which parallels the inspiration and courage of our clients who have all escaped domestic violence. What our world needs is more opportunities to experience the arts.”

Garipee also sees the power of art. “It’s allowed me to start taking things seriously that are important for my culture and my spirituality and (given me) something to pass on to my kids,” he said. “It’s made me a better person, and it’ll make my kids better people, and if that affects the world, my heart will be the world. I think art is passing beauty to the world. … Beauty makes the world a better place.”

A portrait of the artist Prince, painted by an inmate at the Cedar Creek Corrections Center

Dockins — who is now part of the Graduate Reentry Program, serving the rest of his sentence outside prison while wearing an ankle monitor — is excited that this year’s proceeds are going to help homeless people. “It’s just crazy how the world changed. Since I’ve been out, all I see is homeless,” he said. “The picture I’m painting now is dealing with that. And the picture I painted last year—the woman crying draped in the American flag — was with the politics of what’s going on with the world about Americans being sent back to ‘their country’ when they were born in the country.”

A former barber, Dockins took up painting while he was in Cedar Creek. “I started painting in 2016,” he said. “I just picked it up.” He used a cellmate’s supplies at first. “There were no books or formal lessons,” he said. “It was just watching people and trying stuff and seeing what looked good.”

He often painted images taken from the news while he was at Cedar Creek and said he enjoys the challenge of getting the image just right. “When I did my painting of Barak Obama, it was like, ‘I’ll try it.’ I didn’t know how to paint,” he said. “At first it was like a blob, but I kept going, I probably painted that picture 20 times and probably took four months to paint, but it came out good.”

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