“Not only a hobby, but a hustle”: interview with incarcerated artist Jon Morgan

“Not only a hobby, but a hustle”

Interview with incarcerated artist Jon Morgan

Jon Morgan is an artist incarcerated at Shawnee Correctional Center. A virtual gallery of some of his work can be found here.

Interview by Emily Bruell

EB: How did you start creating art?

JM: I’ve always been artistic and creative. Since I could remember I’ve been in love with fantasy and sci-fi (I’m one of those rare trekkie AND star wars fans). I’ve written stories, poems, songs, slogans, politicians, petitions, etc.; and I’ve colored, drawn and painted off and on my whole life. The 1st real individual piece I recall, ironically enough, was of a prison. I was in 5th grade art class in Richmond VA learning ‘perspective,’ so I made a sketch of a Predator-like creature capturing a criminal outside of prison walls and a guard tower. In my juvy imagination the escapee had the pinstripes and eye mask of a thug. He was being held aloft by the shirt collar, of course, and looking quite startled. I’d been copying from images in comics for about a year, if not outright tracing at times, and this taught me some Form and Shading techniques.

Around 5 years old I was diagnosed w/ ADHD, even spent months time in a psychiatric institute, so I’d developed bursts of intense focus on activities that kept me out of trouble and distracted from my sense of isolation. I guess I started the coloring in the institute, which carried over to my Special Ed class, then my art class, and still stands as a fallback to this day, though not really my passion. My creativity expresses itself in many ways, and I’m mediocre in most of them for lack of pursuit, but I’m an exceptional Graphic Designer. I’m a Lazy Leo (born in Aug), so I don’t tend to stick with things unless I see a purpose for them. I mean, I’m not one of those artists who produce work for the joy of it, but for the results or use of it. I need motivation because I’m better at being disciplined than self-disciplined. If PI hadn’t needed work, for instance, I doubt those paintings would exist. They started as some sketches for a coloring book I intend to design. I think the sketches are better…I’m really not much of a painter.

That is how I started, how I’ve continued: when I can’t live, I envision, and sometimes I put those visions into words and images.

EB: And how has art impacted your life?

JM: I’d like to say that being an artist has filled me with serenity, given me a sense of purpose, and allowed me to express myself, but it’s mostly been an on and off relationship. Friends with benefits. When I was young, showing off my work to my mom, especially the prison piece, she insisted that I traced everything. That killed any real passion I had for regular pursuit. I don’t know why. Maybe being rejected by her at every turn, often abandoned, and then having this opportunity, I thought, to show her my value…well, what was the point if my only audience didn’t believe or care? I often wonder what happened to that little portfolio. I don’t remember. I just remember her casual dismissal. I didn’t do much art after that.

Then, not long after, when I was 14 years old, though I intended to kill myself, I ended up killing my abusers. Going down the list of all the reasons not to kill myself and scratching out each one until I got to a girl’s broken heart that I thought mattered is the worst thing that ever happened to me. Instead of ending my misery, I dished it out to others and live with the consequences every day. Needless to say, the girl that mattered, didn’t really. They never do, probably never will at this point. But in jail, imagination does, and art is its best expression. It becomes not only a hobby, but a hustle, supporting you in ways people don’t.

EB: What else do you want people on the outside to know about your experience with art, or with the criminal justice system?

JM: I’ve met many people who’re creative, who have extraordinary talent. I’ve met far fewer who’re motivated or disciplined enough to wield those abilities. I don’t recall an easy or happy time in my life. After 25 years in prison, I can only imagine what that looks like, let alone feels like. But creativity is an outlet of hope. 

Apart from my personal background on the street, this prison environment only exacerbates oppression and helplessness. Over time it forges 2 types of convicts–passionate activists or dispassionate fatalists. I’ve used my creativity to influence politicians, to shorten my sentence, to prepare for release. The system doesn’t give you that outlet, that inspiration. It doesn’t take advantage of the rough hewn talents and potential. It doesn’t cultivate anything but despair. It doesn’t safeguard the community or encourage rehabilitation. It’s just warehousing and punishment and neglect, day after day, after day. And each individual prison has its own harsh brand of execution without oversight. The prison guard union is much like the police union or the teacher’s union, they do as much harm as good by taking advantage of the powerless and by blocking accountability when they act against public interest. And it’s not just a political party, because the system hasn’t improved under the Dems. They’ve actually killed more programs that we used to have, that we need. I’ve lived it for going on 3 decades. 25 years now without practical schooling, skills, or preparation. I can’t even type. I’ve never touched a computer or a smartphone. I can barely communicate with the free world. I know nothing about relationships, parenting, or social skills that I’ve not pursued on my own. Rehabilitative pursuits have to be self motivated in here, which is why it can take years for an individual to make the shift. It’s why the recidivism rate for offenders who’ve served a decade or more is less than 10%, even violent ones. And we have no voice, except our poor art, and our poor loved ones.

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