Interview with Cowarna Patterson, incarcerated artist

How did you start creating art? Do you remember the first piece of art you ever made?

Thinking back to my childhood up until this point of time in my life I have always been a reclusive type of individual and in my times of solitude I reverted to the arts as a means to busy my mind. I guess all those years of me, myself, and my art was preparation for my lot in life (spending time incarcerated).

No, I don’t recall the first work of art I ever did because I was always writing poetry and doodling in notebooks. However, when I was in high school I created what I believe to be my “first master-piece”. It was a woman attired in African garb with an Erykah Badu inspired head wrap. I used colorful chalks to create my very “first master-piece”. I often wonder where that piece is now.

How has making art impacted your life, in or outside of prison?

Besides the power of God, my art has kept me mentally sound over these 18 years of incarceration. Prison is a very high-stress environment and sometimes it seems as if you are cornered with no possible route of escape. I thank God for the talent that He has bestowed upon me because my art is where I go to escape the “prison world”. Yes, prison is a world of its own.

What is something you want people on the outside to know about your art? About you? About our criminal justice system?

I want the world to know that beauty can be created in the most tumultuous times of our lives. Even though I am surrounded by darkness…my art radiates light and beauty. The times we are living in are filled with confusion and calamity, yet, I believe that light is going to shine forth.

 As far as our criminal justice system goes… Well, I would say that nationwide the “scales of justice” are off balance and they are in dire need of repair. Also, having spent the last 18 years of my life in the custody of Illinois’ Department of Correction, I can personally attest to the fact that our state’s criminal justice system is not fulfilling the Constitution’s guarantee to “restore offenders to useful citizenship” due to the fact that our sentencing guidelines in a sense instructs justices to basically “lock offenders up an throw away the key” (even if the defendant is a first time offender of the law).

It is my hope that I will one day be afforded the opportunity to speak directly to the Honorable Governor J.B. Pritzker concerning my ideology of criminal justice reform.

How have you advocated for this kind of reform reform?

 Besides the “tree woman” painting that I donated to the [Parole Illinois] art auction…a few years back I wrote an essay about the need of Illinois establishing a parole system for everyone. My essay was entitled “Change Must Come: Reforming Illinois’ Reform System”.

Is there anything you want to include about the meaning of any specific pieces? A particular concept you wanted to explore, or a message you wanted to send?

The “tree woman” painting that I donated to the art auction was meant to exude strength. I believe that women in particular are built like trees…. We go through a lot, we endure hardship, hurt, and pain (even imprisonment). The storm often seems to break us…but like well rooted trees, we stand firm.

Ladies and Gentlemen, Cowarna Latrice Patterson is not easily broken. Today, I encourage everyone who is walking through what seems like raging winds to grab hold of God and the creativity that He has placed inside all of His wonderful creations– He upheld me and He will do the same for you. 

— Cowarna Patterson, Logan Correctional Facility, IDOC ID R39845

See a selection of Cowarna’s art here