“Little things”: an Interview with Fermin Barron, Incarcerated Artist

“Little Things”

Interview with Fermin Barron

Painting by Fermin Barron of man kneeling at edge of cliff in front of winged, hooded figure with a long sword and an hourglass with sand all run out. The hourglass has the text "What is Real Justice" engraved on it, and the upper chamber seems to be filled with prison bars.

Fermin is an artist incarcerated at the Dixon Correctional Center, interviewed here by Emily Bruell. The above image is a photo of Fermin’s painting, “What is Real Justice?”


EB: How did you first start creating art?

FB: I was on the new (meaning, new to prison), and when you’re on the new, you don’t have anything. You don’t have a TV, no radio, no commissary, none of that. So you have to find a way to pass the time. I had a neighbor, an older guy, I think he was around 50, 60, and he gave me some pencils. He was like, “Man, you know, you got a lot of time that you gotta do, you gotta find a way to keep you busy and help your days go by faster.”

So he gave me some pencils. He was like, “Hey, could you draw this for me?” And I was like, “Man, I don’t even know how to draw.” But I tried. It was looking bad.

But I guess he was just trying to force me to draw, to take on something. So I just kept doing it. And that’s how I started. It was kind of funny, I didn’t know anything, and he just kept pushing me to draw new things.

EB: Did you have any interest in art before this?

FB: Growing up in Mexico City, I loved seeing the walls with a lot of graffiti  representing  the culture of Mexico with our hard working people, a lot of nice colorful walls… back in the 90s, that used to be huge.

I used to like it, I wanted to learn something like that. But I never tried it, before I met that neighbor.

EB: And are the two of you still in touch?

FB: No. They moved him. And they try to stop you from talking to other people in different facilities unless it’s your co-defendant or your family member or something like that.

But he was a good friend, back then. If it wasn’t for him, I don’t know what I would be doing. He helped me a lot, he helped my time go by. You know, I have no family here, so if I can make a little here and there, then thanks to God I’m doing good.

EB: So how did you get into painting?

FB: Actually, five years ago I moved to Dixon, and they had an art room here. I’d gotten better at pencil drawing, so I was trying to get better at doing something different, like using pastels, watercolor, acrylic, and oil. There are a lot of people around here that do different types of art, so just by looking at people and asking questions, I started learning new things.

I work in the art room now. I’m helping people learn, the same way I did. I have to explain that, you know, it’s going to take time, because you can’t think the first time it’s gonna be perfect.

It’s gonna take time, you have to learn how to mix colors and use different brushes and different techniques and all that, and I learned everything by myself or just by looking at a person doing something. I’d be like, “Man, I think I can do that,” or “No, I don’t think that works for me.”

Now I’m trying to help other people do the same thing. And actually, a lot of people keep following me. They come to my window, they come to the door, like, “Güey, how can I do this, how can I do that?”

EB: Do you feel like art has impacted the way you think?

FB: I feel like now that I do art, it’s made me pay more attention to little things. I pay attention to everything. There could be a flower, and it makes me think, how’d this flower come to be? Or how’d this little fly, or this little spider, or something like that, how do they work, you know? How do they function?

In the morning before I go to work, I just go outside and feel the wind and see the trees, and I’ll be paying attention to every single thing. And before it wasn’t like that. It was like, Oh, okay, it’s another day, or whatever.

EB: And do you try to capture what you see in those mornings in your next art piece?

FB: Yeah, I try to see the colors, and think, how can I do that? I see different things, and I’m like, “I gotta try that.”

Even if it’s like picking up leaves or a flower or something that is on the ground, I just pick it up and try to think, How can I do that and make it look realistic?

I’m trying to get better every day. Hopefully in the future, when I get out of here, I can do something like that. I think it can change people’s lives.

You can paint something that can feel more than what you can say. Because every time somebody sees a painting, they’ll be like, “Hey, what is that?” or “What can it mean?” or “What can it represent?”

EB: So what do you want people on the outside to know about you and your art when they look at your pieces?

FB: I don’t know how people view the people in here. Different people think in different ways, right? They might say, “Okay, because he’s in prison, he’s gotta be a bad person.” But I don’t think it’s always like that. Like, in my case, I made a mistake. I’m not going to say, “I didn’t mean to do it,” or “I didn’t mean to be part of it.” It happened and I think it happened for a reason. And I’m trying to show people that I’m a human, you know. Humans may make mistakes. Hopefully one day, they can learn more about me or other people in here.

I think through art, you can spread the word. I’m still working to try to find the right piece where when people see it, they’d be like, “Oh, man, I understand.”

I don’t know. It’s hard, but hopefully one day I’ll be able to do something like that.

EB: And is there anything else that you want people to know about the criminal justice system, or about your experience in the Department of Corrections?

FB: Well, I think they can do better. There’s not enough support for reform in prison. They should make classes or something that let you earn good time, or something like that. In my case, I’m serving 100% of my sentence. And I don’t have the right to see the parole board, so the only way that I can prove that I’m a better person is if I ask for a pardon.

That’s the only way that I can show emotion and ask for forgiveness. I think they should make more programs to help us, because there’s a lot more people like me.


View all of Fermin’s artwork here.