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The Tower Book - 2007

Notes on The Tower Book

This is the only book edition of its kind. It is a collaboration between the art program at San Quentin and the now disbanded Women’s program at the California Rehabilitation Center, in Norco, California.  I’ve been teaching in the California prison system since 1985.  When I first started teaching, it was through the California Arts Council Artist in Residency Grants. Selected by a panel of my peers, I received $1600 per month to provide 20 hours per week of instruction at the participating institution. Many young artists in the state of California started their careers with this program.  That program no longer exists, and the tolerance for this kind of program is increasingly threatened.

Prison Projects : About

I should start with what I bring in. Here’s a partial list of my tools and supplies that I must
get pre-approved by the Artist Facilitators, before teaching my classes:

2 pairs 6” blunt-end scissors
2 retractable olfa cutters w/ 12 snap off blades per knife
18 - 4”  bookbinders’ needles
2 - 24” metal rulers
2 - Quick-Grip mini bar clamps
2 - 1/2”  wood chisels
12 - 8”  bone folders
1 gallon Jade 403 PVA glue
5 tubes assorted printing inks
6 - 4” brayers
6 - 12” brayers
3 bottles methyl cellulose paste
12 - 3” wide foam brushes
Assorted books, paper and book cloth
Assorted binder’s board
1 yellow hand cart

Prison Projects : Welcome
Prison Projects : Causes

Trust is the key to working in this world.  When Officer Strobelt asks me as I leave the prison: “Do you have your murder weapon?” I must indeed have my retractable knife with all the snap off blades accounted for. Like the Hippocratic oath, I must first “do no harm.”  The officers and staff of the prison need to know I can be trusted. The inmates also need to trust me to watch my tools. They don’t want to see their cell torn up and their bodies searched because a tool is missing.  We make the structure of trust transparent to everyone.  When everything is well lit, it’s harder for trouble to develop.

My primary interest has been to provide art classes to women in prison. By using the “craft” of book arts, I’ve been able to draw into the program many women who might not otherwise investigate art. Through private funding, I purchase the best materials I can find: Canapetta linen book cloth from Italy, Irish
linen threads, archival glues, French printmaking paper. The value of the materials reflects the value I place in my students. I bring the best to encourage the best and they never fail me.
It’s amazing how simple and true this formula is. Works from my classes are in collections at the Getty Museum of Art and The Library of Congress, to name a few.  The purpose of the work is to give my inmate students the proper “dress” to attend the ball, to become part of the conversation about incarceration when a more enlightened perception is possible.

We are living in a time of twisted priorities, of which our overflowing prisons are symptomatic.  Teddy Roosevelt was the first to coin the concept of the “living wage.” That it should be “...a standard high enough to make morality possible.”  When I look at the images created by my students or read their stories, I see Dorothea Lange’s Dust Bowl refugees. I give this as an example to illustrate that
I am responsible as an artist to see the context I exist in. Art is about seeing. As you look at this work, I challenge you to see large.

Beth Thielen,   2007

Prison Projects : Text


Group project Artist Book - in progress

SQ book project participants.jpg

What  relationship  does  love  have  to  freedom?  

That is the question that formed in my consciousness one day while I was drawing, soon after  I had  started working with incarcerated populations through the California Arts Council, Artist in Residency program.

Over the decades of working in prisons, I am continually struck with how differently incarcerated people are perceived by the outside world from how I have come to see them.  The quality of my experience teaching art to people in prisons differs from my teaching experiences at universities. Those who have lost their freedom understand the need and power of art.  They are hungry for it.

To teach in the art room at San Quentin Prison is to experience a group collectively striving for transcendence.  We begin at 8 in the morning. Sometimes we are printmaking, sometimes we are bookbinding. Many share their portfolio of drawings or paintings with me.  We work until they are called for count at 4:00pm.  No one takes a break.  No one wants to.  Art matters here.

The answer to my question is elegantly stated in a quote from Toni Morrison: “The function of freedom is to free someone else.”  What does this say about our criminal justice system and our democracy?  The incarcerated have met hardships often spanning many generations of their family with courage, generosity and strength.  They are like a species living on the edge of sustainability.  Life’s stresses cause them to search, adapt, change.  I have never before encountered a group that brings so much imagination to lack - a rare and vital skill.


Dr. Jason Clay of the World Wildlife Fund notes that: “We will not solve our environmental problems unless we solve our social and economic ones.”  With that in mind, what if we made prison reform part of reparations and the Green New Deal?  I say this not only because it is right to free many of the incarcerated, but also because we need them. Their hard won skills may be what we need in the new challenges we face.

The power of art is in making us see anew. See with me. Change with me. We have work to do.

Take Action
Prison Projects : Take Action

Work in Progress - Etchings of students coming out of the guard tower.

Prison Projects : Welcome
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