ArtCar... thy name is "VAN-ity"

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Trinidad Correctional Facility inmate Kelvin Jack generally takes the lead when discussing the project, but everyone has a role and a piece of the whole that reflects who they are, or is their own personal flight of whimsy. Jack is working on what might be the head and it’s pinecone teeth, Earl McWilliams shows off handmade figurines that will reside on one part, Efrain Carrera carries old television screens that have been painted with a broad range of themes, Lt. James Costin is said to be responsible for the craziest painted screen, Anthony Powell painted a screen pink for his young daughter.

The group even has a mascot: a dog named Hank being cared for and trained at the prison.

They talk, they plan, they animate what they see in their heads with their hands, they laugh, they tease and they work together.

What they are physically working on is this year’s art-car in preparation for Trinidad’s annual ArtoCade parade and celebration. The prison has made several entries since the beginning of the zaniness that is ArtoCade. Yet, really, what they are working on is something much harder to define and much more valuable.

“One of the goals here is to get them doing something,” said Trinidad Correctional Facility’s Captain Lance Gatlin. “These programs, like the art car and our dog training program, develop skills and being productive helps their well-being, which keeps them safer and keeps us safer and keeps the public safer. When these men are released they need to be prepared to be successful and that is a big part of what we do here.”

But it seems a little silly, doesn’t it? Grown men, convicted criminals even, painting old televisions and collecting pine cones to turn a painted car into a sculpture of pure whimsy?

The prisoners are working to lay out a mockup of their design with what seems to be a hundred odd pieces of art and pinecones that will be toes, or teeth and Pringles cans that link this to that. They hash out the plan between them, Jack points out where to put a few of the bigger pieces. McWilliams and Carrera tote the miniature sculptures. Powell helps hold them in place. They move quickly and efficiently and communicate well.

“That’s it. That’s what we look for and is what makes things like this valuable,” said Lt. James Costin. “They are talking to one another, working as a team. It’s building social skills and often it was the lack of those social skills that landed them in here. That is a big part of what they need to operate in the world.”

Bringing the art car world into the prison was one of the first initiatives for ArtoCade organizer Rodney Wood when he started the now annual parade. “Yes. It’s silly,” said Wood. “That’s always the point, but these guys take it as serious as anyone and they have a harder job than anyone else doing this and have to put more thought into it.”

Jack, who has worked on previous art cars, describes how on one, when a paint job went bad, the prisoners used rocks found in the yard to sand the car back down with their bare hands. Sand paper wasn’t allowed to be brought in, much less the proper tools for the job, but they always find a way to make do. Egos are put aside and there is no defeatism working on art.

When they are finished mocking up the pieces to be attached to this year’s project that will be christened “VAN-ity,” they lounge around Lt. Costin’s office. This will be Costin’s last art car at the prison, because he’s planning to retire this fall. Wood cracks some bad jokes and the group discusses how the project will all come together.

Outside of the break-proof glass and green jumpsuits it could be any creative meeting. Men talking seriously on the topic of silliness. It just seems to matter a little more here.

ArtoCade is September 13-14. There you can see “VAN-ity” and a previous prisoner designed car that features the giant head of Einstien as well as many other creations. There is also the Art Cartopia Museum that is open year round. During the week of ArtoCade, Wood and others will be driving as many as 20 art cars out to Trinidad Correctional for a short parade there for the inmates.

Prisoners from Trinidad Correctional Facility hard at work finishing another ArtoCade entry

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