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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

Seeing jail inmates with an artist's eye

Artist Kevin McEvoy teaches drawing and painting to

Artist Kevin McEvoy teaches drawing and painting to inmates at the Suffolk County jail. Credit: Gordon M. Grant

'You want to look into the eyes of your subject," Kevin McEvoy, an artist, classically trained, told the class in a slow, hypnotic voice. "Everything, their whole story, is in their eyes," he said.

It was then, just for a moment, that a visitor in the back of the room began to wonder: Did these students -- inmates McEvoy volunteers to teach at the Suffolk County jail -- look into the eyes of the people they are accused of hurting?

Can this preternaturally calm and gifted man, who took a childhood trauma and transformed it into a quiet strength, teach them how?

The reverie passes as Mc-Evoy, who lives in Islip and has a studio in Riverhead, explains the lesson of the day. He talks about different grades of pencil; about the casts of classical Greek statues he's brought for them to sketch; about how to use string and a metal washer to measure a drawing's accuracy.

So far, the classes have been lectures. On this day four men will become the first in the class to put pencil to paper.

"Don't expect great things and don't expect to finish," said McEvoy, 31, who, after driving to work past the jail for months, sought permission to teach drawing and painting every couple of weeks.

The men listen, giving Mc-Evoy respect and their full attention, no small thing in a class -- which includes accused violent repeat offenders and one accused killer -- separated from the rest of us by barbed-wire and bad choices.

"When Kevin came over the first time, he talked, just talked, for an hour and a half and he had them riveted," said Sgt. Noreen Fisher of the jail's rehab unit. "I've never seen them like that."

The men in McEvoy's class earned their places through merit as part of the jail's Council for Unity program, which brings together rival gang members who work to keep things peaceful in the facility.

Maybe McEvoy's soothing voice earned respect. Or maybe it was how he managed to capture one man's spirit in lines and shading from his pencil.

"Look at that eye, man, he really got Speedy's eye," one student told another, pointing to McEvoy's unfinished drawing of inmate Philip "Speedy" Egbert, 52, as other students took positions at easels nearby.

"I sat still, very still," Egbert would say later. "I couldn't see what he was doing and I was stunned when I saw the paper."

What's in it for the students?

"It calms me down," said David Belford, 27. "It gives me some kind of relief, some escape from this place."

McEvoy kept the men working to the end of class. And when they had filed out the back to return to what passes for life at the jail, he turned to the task of folding easels and packing away pencils.

Why does he do it?

When McEvoy was 14, he said, three teens attacked and brutally beat him. A fourth beat back the others, pulled McEvoy to his feet and made sure he got home. "I never got his name and I know his friends got back at him for saving me," McEvoy said.

Later, McEvoy was asked to identify his attackers. "I remember that the gutter was falling off of one of their houses and I remember that this kid's father came out of the house so angry that you knew he was going to beat that kid when we were gone," he said.

McEvoy, a graduate of Smithtown Christian School, said he stopped hating his attackers that day. He would remember the incident years later on reflecting on the work of C.S. Lewis. "You have never talked to a mere mortal," Lewis wrote.

"Lewis says there is something immortal in all of us," McEvoy said. "Not everyone is as lucky as I was, with a good home and great parents."

He said that in prison men can become objects. McEvoy looks into their eyes and sees men.

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