Dreaming into Existence: Collaborative Art in Prison

Annie Buckley describes her experiences working with incarcerated artists via the Prison Arts Collective.

Dreaming into Existence: Collaborative Art in Prison

IN SPRING 2013, I began a class that has since evolved into the statewide program Prison Arts Collective (PAC). Over the past decade, working alongside artists, faculty members, students, and local and international volunteers, we have brought art to over 7,000 people incarcerated in California state prisons. Our vision is a collaborative and inclusive society where everyone has access to the arts to promote well-being and empowerment. We co-create that world with the people who take part in our classes while living under confinement. This is the story of one of those classes. (For previous stories about PAC, please see LARB’s Art Inside archive.)

From 2021 through 2023, a core team that included myself, photographer Peter Merts, and dancer and fellow San Diego State University professor Jess Humphrey, along with other PAC team members, facilitated a relay-like series of collaborative art workshops at a prison on the southern border, where California meets Arizona. Planning began on Zoom, where we carved out a pathway for how to support our students in collaborative art making and mapped out dates for the workshops. The project proceeded with workshops in the prison, leading up to the first culminating performance.

At the same time, dance students at SDSU worked with Jess to create an original work in response to the prison project and performed it on campus. Finally, PAC peer facilitators—incarcerated artists who went through our intensive teacher training—led their students in creating a third performance. Peter traveled south from Northern California to photograph the workshops and performances (all images included here are his). Throughout much of this time, we were still operating under the many restrictions on gathering, inside and outside of prisons, imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Prison Arts Collective is funded by the California Arts Council and California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. This collaborative art project was also funded by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). A version of this text-photo essay was printed in a limited edition publication by Prison Arts Collective and funded by the NEA.


How to make something from nothing? This age-old question inspires and challenges artists from all walks of life but takes on new meaning in a correctional institution, where creative souls spin intricate works from the most limited means—detritus on the floor, leftover coffee grounds, cuttings from magazines, the backs of official forms. In the collaborative art workshop for Prison Arts Collective, we take the question one step further: how can we create something from nothing, or next to nothing, in the most restrictive environment, together? Working in a group adds new depth and difficulty to the process of mining the imagination to innovate art and meaning. While many artists tend to create from their singular viewpoints, for those who are incarcerated, collaboration can be impossible and is fraught with the complexities, dangers, and limitations of living under confinement. Yet here, we ask everyone to come together on one project.

We began planning for this first workshop months in advance. We selected dates, each team member preserving their calendar for the full weekend, cleared these dates with the prison authorities, requested clearances for guests and new team members, gathered detailed lists of supplies for approval, booked hotel rooms, submitted travel forms, and checked off our lists. Teaching in a prison is never just showing up with a plan to teach. It takes legwork and persistence, planning and discussion, flexibility and patience, and many detailed lists and requisite forms.


When the first workshop date arrives in June 2022, we make our way from various points in Southern and Northern California through the dusty desert at the edge of California to the remote prison where our participants are waiting. We meet at the guard station—where our equipment and supplies are checked, one by one—and sign in with our names and numbers, marking the hour in military time. We make our way through multiple locked gates, picking up an alarm and a heavy set of keys along the way. When we arrive at the classroom where we will teach, we set up our supplies and give the class roster to the officer who will call the students to class. We have been teaching at this prison for nearly six years, and three of the participants who took our facilitator training when we first came here have been teaching weekly art classes as peer facilitators in the prison ever since. In addition to these three, we have about 20 more students.

As the students are led into the room and find seats, we introduce ourselves and the project. We explain that we will be making an artwork as a group, and the generalized buzz of enthusiasm turns to questions. We tell them that we have done this before and will guide them through the process. Despite some skeptical faces, we plunge ahead, taking time to learn about everyone in the room, what they like to make, and what they hope the collaborative piece will express. We share images from Peter of collaborative artwork made by men and women at other prisons. Coming up with a theme from the ideas of 20-some individuals is a process resembling a sieve or a net: we gather ideas and slowly begin to parse and organize them, creating groups of similar suggestions, taking votes to see who is interested in what, drawing connections with arrows and indicating preferences with stars, generally culling one from many.

Prison Arts Collective collaborative workshop, Photograph by Peter Merts, 2022.

The next day, we arrive bright and early, with plenty of time to run through the requisite ID checks and security gates we will pass to get to class. This time, our workshop will take place in the chapel, a makeshift classroom that normally holds services for all denominations but is free today. It is larger than the other classroom but lacks the art supply cabinet. Relying on the limited supplies we brought with us, we dive into an exercise to get ideas rolling, and the creative practice starts to evolve. One of our instructors was previously a participant in our art classes in this same prison; upon release, he graduated from college and is now teaching with us. A tableau exercise generates laughter; it feels good to get up and move around the room. Eventually, we come back to the circle and revisit the ideas from the previous day, trying again to find one idea that represents the majority of what was shared. But each time we start to settle, the group resists, as if resting on one idea—no matter how inclusive—will leave someone out. There is a strong desire not to exclude any idea. We formulate a few distinct projects that together serve to integrate the various threads of thought into one—a creative interpretation that seems to satisfy the group. The themes, broadly, are community, identity, and freedom.

When we return in August, the heat is up to 120 degrees. The participants express that they are concerned about us in the heat, but we are fortunate to travel in air-conditioned cars and stay in air-conditioned hotel rooms. Though their situation is clearly more difficult, they persist in their care for us coming in from the outside. We are happy to be back. We start in a circle with an exercise in which we greet each other by stating our first names with a representative gesture. Everyone repeats the name and gesture back in an echo. For those who are incarcerated, it can be a rarity to hear their own first names. Most of the day and night, they are referred to by their identification numbers or their last names, or simply as “inmate.” Some haven’t heard their first names in years. We listen to each name and repeat it back. The rhythm is singsong, and the mood is light.

Next, we ask how everyone is feeling since our last visit. The general sense is excitement merged with anxiety. The lack of clarity about what exactly this thing, or things, we are making will be translates to most as confusion and a pervasive nervousness. They want to know what exactly it is so that they can make it great. “We will get there,” we say, gently encouraging them to follow the process. We don’t know what it will be, either, but have to believe as we guide them to find their way. It is time to shape the idea into specific outcomes with tasks and tools to arrive at an end. The artists are committed to the approach of multiple smaller projects creating one big one. We divide into breakout groups to outline each idea in more detail. One group works on a larger version of the tableau, identifying the narrative and scenes. Another plans an installation of heart-shaped frames that will hold memories from each artist. One of my students from another prison, who was recently transferred here, takes a lead in teaching others the intricate paper-folding technique to make hearts, a difficult process that is new to most. At this table, intense focus is punctuated with laughter and smiles as those learning gradually get the hang of folding tiny strips of paper into interlocking chains and curving those into heart shapes. A third group plans a collaborative drawing, intent on having it take the shape of a puzzle, and a fourth group is gathering information to learn what props are needed to bring the full project to life. They soon set to work creating this wish list from cardboard and paper. It is a fun and productive day as the various parts of the whole begin to take shape before our eyes.

Prison Arts Collective collaborative workshop, Photograph by Peter Merts, 2022.

At the end of the day, we regroup in a circle. There is a clear plan for the project, and the artists will need to work on it while we are gone in order to be ready for the performance when we return. We don’t yet have a date for the next visit but map out a plan of what space and day to request. There are lots of questions. Can they bring guests? What about supplies? How will we hang the hearts and install the puzzle? What materials are needed to complete the performance? We sit together to brainstorm, make lists, and answer questions. We ask how everyone is feeling, and though some nerves remain, they are eclipsed by a mixture of excitement, optimism, and energy that fuels a productive conversation.

In between visits to the prison, Peter, Jess, and I continue to meet monthly, discussing next steps, planning what to request as tools and materials to ensure that we can install the project when we return, creating invitations for guests both inside the prison and out, crafting our request for the date and room for the performance. We invite other team members to attend and seek permission for the artists to invite one guest from outside the prison and one from inside. This last element is crucial since the prison is hours away from most towns and most participants don’t have family or friends who can make the long trip. Giving the artists the opportunity to invite others from within the prison expands the opportunity to share their hard work with friends. By the end of September, we have secured clearances for our outside guests, obtained approval for supplies, booked hotels, created a program, and invited staff from the prison. We are ready.

On the day of the performance, we arrive early. We make our way through the series of gates to the visiting area and begin to set up for the day as the men are brought to the space. The group is quite large, about 60 men. We have two hours with them to prepare before more guests arrive, including our team members and a guest artist visiting PAC from Australia. We invite the peer facilitators to the front of the space, and then it dawns on us that none of our participants is present. What is going on? We huddle and quickly realize that we were brought to the wrong yard but didn’t notice in our excitement for the big day. (In prison, a yard—or facility—is a secure area within the prison. In California prisons, residents of one yard cannot interact with those in others.) All of us, inside staff and out, failed to notice that different letter on the planning paperwork. We talk with the prison staff, but of course it is too late to change now. There were too many steps to get here. It dawns on us that we have a large group of new participants and yet are prepared for a culminating performance with our original participants. There is no time for disappointment and no going back. We glance at the eager faces and quickly hatch a plan to improvise a workshop, to make something out of nothing, or at least out of the fractured moment and what we have on hand.

For the next two hours, we facilitate workshops in tableaux and guide reflective discussions on the artistic process. As our guests arrive, they join, fielding questions about college and brainstorming ways to expand our art classes. Throughout, there is laughter, conversation, and connection. Even in this space of error and disjuncture, there is a pathway to shared creativity and collaborative experience. Eventually, the cake and punch, specially ordered for the long-awaited performance, are delivered. The invited prison staff arrive, and we briefly explain the situation, hoping to quell expectations. As it turned out, they would see something born out of two hours of preparation rather than two months. Some stay and some leave. We gather chairs in a semicircle. Everyone takes seats, and we introduce the event. A brief but energetic performance takes place and is met with enthusiastic applause. With plenty of time remaining, we ask the audience for input on what they enjoyed and any suggestions for improvement. The groups of performers listen and gamely perform again, implementing the suggestions to marvelous effect. After more applause, we thank the group and invite everyone to line up for cake baked in the prison kitchen. Most artists come back for seconds, enjoying the rare treat. The mood is bright and conversation bubbles. Something out of nothing, created on the fly, together.

Prison Arts Collective collaborative workshop, Photograph by Peter Merts, 2022.

In late October, Peter makes his way to San Diego and joins us for a retirement party for one of our valued team members. Afterwards, we make our way across campus to the dance studio for the dress rehearsal of the student-led dance inspired by the workshop in the prison. Jess worked with her student dancers for months, reviewing Peter’s photos of the prison workshops and exploring the themes and ideas that the artists inside suggested for their piece. The students have created a dance and accompanying song in response to what they saw in the work and conversations about it. As we sit, eagerly awaiting, several student dancers come up to introduce themselves, telling us how much this project has meant to them. The connection, through art, has been real and impactful.

After some hustle and bustle, the lights dim and a spotlight lands on two students at the piano, bright blue hair and shiny black and white keys glowing in the light. Two students join center stage, crocheting a massive pink-and-white heart, mirroring heart-shaped frames made by the men inside. Lights expand across the vast stage and dancers emerge, singly and in pairs, a diversity of bodies. With grace and passion, they swerve and bend and jump. Peter’s photos appear on a massive screen behind them and images of the artists in their prison blues fill the space.


In January 2023, several months after our intended return, we pack our bags and drive to the desert. The heat has eased and the air is crisp. We bundle in scarves and warm coats, black as usual, to avoid any of the colors disallowed to those visiting the prison. In the interim, our teachers have continued their monthly visits to the art classes led by the peer facilitators, and so we are able to learn that there have been various struggles since our last visit. Some of the artists have been transferred to other prisons. Others heard, falsely, through a prison grapevine inaccessible to us, that we weren’t coming back. Many of the frames and puzzle pieces for the performance have gone missing—some confiscated, others abandoned in frustration or disappointment. We don’t know if there will be any props or art when we arrive. Nevertheless, we are committed to being there to allow the artists to complete the project. We set a date, send invitations, regather supplies, and recirculate memos.

When we arrive at the prison on the morning of the performance, the men and their guests file into the visiting room—the proper group this time. We are thrilled to see them. They begin to unpack boxes full of brightly colored and intricately folded paper hearts. They unfurl a large painting of a midnight-blue galaxy and pull out several playfully oversized, handmade cardboard books. Apparently, when word got out that we were returning, the artists regrouped and either located or recreated all the materials for the performance. We are moved by their resilience and ingenuity, their will to make something out of nothing, together. But it’s not out of nothing, not really, since the artworks have been made out of care and passion and an immense and unquenchable drive to connect, no matter what.

Prison Arts Collective collaborative workshop, Photograph by Peter Merts, 2022.

We show the artists photos of the student dance performance and they want to integrate these into the project. We get to work, hanging photos and drawings on windows behind a colorful play area for visiting children, barbed wire visible through the windows, as we string hearts on a line, each graceful paper heart spinning and dangling in space. The room begins to take shape. They are ready. The cake and punch are delivered. Guests arrive. The fiancée and mother of the heart-artist made the long drive. Some staff from the prison join. The inside guests are seated in a semicircle. The energy is light and eager. The artists bounce in place, waiting for the show to start.

The performance unfolds in parts. A strikingly theatrical tableau demonstrates the experience of a man leaving prison with two pathways ahead of him, one in which he is rejected by family and society and ends up on the streets, and another in which he is greeted with open arms, finds a job, and expresses his story in speeches to inspire and educate others. This is followed by individual performances of poems and a song accompanied by guitar. At the end, the artist who made the hearts invites everyone to take their heart from the string, graciously sharing his with his mother. The event wraps up with cake and punch and celebratory conversation.

The last step of this process involves some of the artists in our group guiding their peers in a similar collaborative process. Along the way, we have been checking in to ask how it is going. But the process of cultivating the main performance has taken so much of our energy, and theirs, that none of us had focused much on the peer-led one. As we were nearing the end of the grant cycle, this was the last step. Around that time, a new teacher joined to mentor the peer facilitators. With her fresh perspective and support, the facilitators were reenergized, guiding the process with their participants, asking questions, inviting ideas. Now, they all come together around one theme: a perfect world, with elaborate plans.

In April 2023, our team arrives in the gym, and the artists are busy hanging a large paper for a shared drawing and pulling out props, including a cardboard light bulb, the universal symbol for a new idea, outsized and handmade. The group presents a powerful tableau performance, creating a live collaborative drawing at the same time behind the performers. At the conclusion of their narrative, the audience bursts into applause.


Art is the stuff of magic and daydreams and thought clouds, and it is also the fuel for protest and action and the cultivation of identity, of who we are in the world. To bring the stretchy, strong, uncertain space of art to the rigid, restrictive space of prison is a gift. To bear witness to the way that people who are imprisoned in that space take this thread and, together, weave a story that expresses their souls and humanity, and the urgency with which they do it, is poignant. It is an opportunity to dream a new world into existence.


Featured image: Prison Arts Collective collaborative workshop, Photograph by Peter Merts, 2022.

LARB Contributor

Annie Buckley is an artist, writer, and editor at large for LARB. She is the founding director of the Institute for the Arts, Humanities, and Social Justice at San Diego State University, where she is a professor of visual studies and the founder and principal investigator of Prison Arts Collective, a statewide program in California since 2013, and VISTA (Valuing Incarcerated Scholars Through Academia). Buckley is the editor of Higher Education and the Carceral State: Transforming Together (Routledge, 2024) and the author and illustrator of Kids’ Yoga Deck (Chronicle Books, 2003). Her writing about contemporary art and culture is widely published, including in Artforum and The Huffington Post.


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