Craft. Color. Imagination. Excellence.
If art were athletics, the words would be stenciled on the locker room wall
- exhortations from the coaching staff intended to bring out a player's best.
Brian Maguire, an Irish expressionist painter with a big reputation at home
and a view of the human condition that is no less expansive, looked around the
White Box Gallery on West 26th Street in Manhattan. Craft, color, imagination
and excellence - Maguire's idea of what art demands - were in ample supply.
As a coach, Maguire, 51, had succeeded, and probably as a human being, too.
"It was like bringing water into sand," said Maguire on a recent afternoon,
thinking of the students who had produced the bold, bright works mounted on
the gallery walls.
This year and last, Maguire taught art to 15 inmates of the Bayview
Correctional Facility on West 20th Street and 11th Avenue, a medium-security
state women's prison with a population of more than 300 - including 170 on work
release - in what once was a YMCA catering to seamen.
He found the students eager, attentive, determined. They were locked up for
various felony convictions - protective of the women, Maguire provided few
specifics about their backgrounds - but, the artist noted, a criminal record
leaves much unsaid. "I've never met a person where there wasn't something good
At Bayview, he said, his students proved an admirable bunch. They wanted to
tackle something worthwhile, conquer boredom, gain a measure of control in an
environment where they had little or none.
In jail, noted Maguire, "decision-making is not part of the daily routine."
Art is all the opposite. Stroke, tone, subject - the painter is the
rule-maker, the guard and warden. "It is a very healthy thing to be involved
in," said Maguire.
Maguire, whose subjects include inmates of Northern Ireland jails and
children of a favela, or shantytown, in S�o Paulo, Brazil, said he has no
interest in "rehabilitation." "That's not what I'm after," said the artist, who
teaches at the National College of Art and Design in Dublin. "I'm after
He wanted to introduce the inmates to art - and, he said, "make the art
world aware of their existence."
For a long time, the art world - which has colonized much of the
neighborhood around Bayview - had little contact with the prison, an anonymous
brick building opposite the Chelsea Piers amusement complex.
But Fergus McCaffrey, an independent curator at the Gagosian Gallery on
West 24th Street, heard stories about women in Bayview whistling at men working
at an art storage space across the street. It was a reminder that artists
weren't the only ones in Chelsea.
The women had introduced themselves. Now, McCaffrey thought, the art world
should return the favor.
Maguire was a natural to serve as emissary.
He had a stellar reputation as teacher and practitioner - the Irish Times
newspaper called him one of the country's "most prominent and influential
artists" - and the temperament for the task. "I was asked to make a bridge
between art and the prison," said Maguire in a subsequent conversation by phone
from Dublin, where he lives.
Maguire often paints on themes of alienation and isolation and has a keen
interest in prisons, which, he thinks, provide a glimpse of the jailer as well
as the jailed. "It reveals how we care for the weakest and most vulnerable," he
With funding from private foundations, the Irish government's Department of
Arts, Sport and Tourism, and the Kerlin Gallery in Dublin (and some cash of
his own), Maguire lived in New York - off and on - for a year and a half. He
worked at Bayview for 17 weeks and conducted another project at Arthur Kill
Correctional Facility in Staten Island. At Bayview, the artist hauled supplies
with a rolling suitcase. He taught students the basics, encouraged them to
trust their instincts and paint from experience. "To shed light on what's in
them," he said.
Paint the most significant man in your life, he told the inmates. The most
significant woman. Paint the place that made you happiest. The place that made
you most miserable. Paint the best day of your life. Paint the object you love
They painted - and so did Maguire.
"The Bayview Project" exhibition at the not-for- profit, socially conscious
White Box combines Maguire's broad-stroked, unapologetic portraits of the
women - four are featured on a billboard at the corner of 10th Avenue and West
20th Street - and the forthright and revealing acrylic paintings done by his
students. "Their work is a collective self-portrait," Maguire said.
For a while, it looked as though the White Box show - which runs through
Dec. 17 - would be incarcerated itself.
Gallery officials said authorities at Bayview told them exhibitions of
inmate art were barred by the state and demanded that the paintings be returned.
Earlier in the year, Glenn Goord, state correctional services department
commissioner, canceled an annual prisoner art show in Albany that had been
presented for more than three decades but that in 2001 drew criticism for
including the work of a serial killer. Department spokesman James Flateau said
Goord objected to the Albany exhibit because it depended on public funding and
allowed inmates to sell their work, which the commissioner considered a "slap
in the face to crime victims," though half the proceeds went to a state
With the White Box exhibit now in jeopardy, the New York Civil Liberties
Union contacted Goord. The rights group assured him that White Box sought no
profit and that paintings would not be sold - and threatened a lawsuit unless
the state cited its authority to ban an event in a private venue. In his reply,
Goord said White Box was not in violation of policy, that the show could go
on, and that he wished the exhibition success.
Flateau said corrections officials recognize the value of privately
financed projects like Maguire's - to prisoners and, consequently, the public.
"It's something positive they can be proud of, and work on, and develop a whole
different head set than the one that led them to be in prison in first place,"
Maguire said the importance was clear to him, too. "The worthwhileness was
in the work the women did," he said.
The pictures - often simple and direct - differed from the material in
At White Box, there was no pink-and-aqua abstract that looked like the
aftermath of a paintball skirmish, or king-size construction resembling a water
slide, or arrangement of plastic cubes stuck to the wall in a shape vaguely
suggesting Long Island.
For Maguire's students, reality came in more familiar shapes.
One inmate painted a man with cocoa-colored skin. He is surrounded by icons
- money going into a bag, a bottle of gin, a pistol. The man is crying.
Another piece depicted a fellow with red eyes who appears to be tumbling -
"falling down or falling up," observed Juan Puntes, director of White Box -
while a woman, dressed in pink, waits in a doorway, a placid patch of blue in
There was a pickup truck, lovingly rendered, by a woman from upstate New
York - a pickup so true and inviting that a viewer might imagine taking a ride
on a fine autumn day when the last leaves are falling and sun glances off the
hood, and the breeze trickling through the window hints that winter is on the
"The truck is the most important possession in her life," said Maguire of
the artist. He noted how the image of the vehicle was alone on the sheet. "It
fills the frame," he said. "There is nothing else."
A few days later, one of the Bayview artists, Elizabeth Cassarino, 38, of
Manhattan was at the gallery. Released from prison and enrolled in vocational
training, Cassarino, upbeat, energetic and with a ready smile (her likeness is
on the 10th Avenue billboard, first face on the left), conducted a tour of her
pieces, complete with running commentary - emphasis on "running."
Cassarino screeched to a stop in front of her picture of the World Trade
Center. A flag waved on top of one of the towers. "I put a flag so that I
shouldn't be sad," she said. "That what they did won't get me down."
In the picture, too, was a person she calls "Fashion Girl." She is that
girl, of course, said Cassarino - the girl with the long earrings and heavy eye
makeup and the miniskirt and the Gucci bag. In real life, the Fashion Girl
doesn't have a Gucci bag. "No," she said. "I'm trying to get one."
Cassarino moved along. There was the picture of Bloomingdale's with big,
cathedral-like arches, and the one of Coney Island with a giant crab on the
beach and a shark in the water, and another of her old drum set. Finally,
Cassarino stopped in front of a portrait of the women in her family. Notes
drifted overhead because, Cassarino said, the women all are musical, even if
that means, in some cases, that they once took hula lessons.
She looked hard at the piece. "To me, it's like harmony," she said.
On the phone, Maguire was told of Cassarino's high-voltage enthusiasm. The
artist said he could imagine. He said a few more words on prisons, about how,
in his country, time behind bars does not necessarily foreclose a person's
future. His impression is that it often is different here. "In America, if you
go to prison, that's almost it," Maguire said.
For all people, he said, there is a need for hope. That was the lesson of
Elizabeth Cassarino, Bayview alum, artist on exhibition, fashion girl still
dreaming of a Gucci bag. She was the point, Maguire said. "Elizabeth is the
success of the project."