Q&A: A teacher who unlocks prisoners’ inner artist

Name: Carol Newborg
Age: 61
City: Albany
Position: Artist and teacher


Carol Newborg

J.: You’ve been teaching art in men’s and women’s prisons throughout California for almost 40 years, and now you’re the program manager for the San Quentin Prison Arts Project. What effect does practicing art have on prisoners?

Carol Newborg: You see people changing so much. They’re from hugely troubled and messed up backgrounds and childhoods, and then they start discovering, “Oh, I can do art. I can write.” People start saying “I can do something. I’m creative.” It hooks people into feeling positive. It’s a gateway to getting people back to school. People end up pursuing an Associate of Arts degree inside and get out. It’s a path to transformation.

How did you start working as an artist?

I took a year off college when I was 19 and went traveling and started drawing every day, and it sort of became a practice and eventually a passion. I was fascinated with the old temple ruins and the concept of a sanctuary. Up to that point I thought I would become a psychologist. I did an independent major at Berkeley on art as therapy. Working with the inmates and then doing my own art practice has always been sort of parallel.

Kehilla Community Synagogue in Piedmont, where you’re a member, is displaying work by San Quentin inmates in an exhibit called “Art and Poetry for Peace” through March 4. What were the pieces on display created for?

This exhibit was organized on behalf of an amazing annual event at San Quentin called the Day of Peace. We get about 3,700 men out on the yard for it. Many of the inmate groups set up tables, and they all set up a painting. It’s like a college campus at the beginning of the semester. It’s all for the cause of peace: world peace but primarily peace among gangs and individuals. It’s peace in the streets.

Darryl Kennedy’s “World Paradise Coming Soon” is part of an exhibit of works by San Quentin inmates at Kehilla synagogue.

What type of art resonates with inmates?

The indigenous prison art is tattoos. That aesthetic of detail and realism gets the most respect. At San Quentin we have this wonderful series of workshops with this amazing man who teaches how to paint with oils in the style of the Dutch masters. The 1600s Dutch work is very popular. There’s a teacher now whose style is kind of like Edward Hopper. It’s realistic but it has to have feeling.

What is it like to be a woman teaching in a men’s prison?

It takes a while to get used to it. It’s weird, and you’re very self-conscious. I’m 61 now. When I was doing this in the beginning, I was in my 30s. It was a lot harder as a young woman than it is now. This is part of what you need to get trained for. You have to have formal boundaries of acceptable language. You can fist bump, but you can’t hug somebody. Surprisingly, the men in the art studio talk about the way they can drop some of the facade they need on the yard to be tough.

What drew you to working in prisons?

We weren’t religious, but a lot of what I was taught growing up was that our role in the world is to help people. Somebody asked me once, “Why do you get involved in the prison stuff?” I’d never really thought about it. But I think it’s a weird relation to the camps. We had cousins and family on my mother’s side that survived Auschwitz, and my mother grew up with these stories and passed them on.

For Jews, I think there’s a kind of unique way of thinking about prison — that it isn’t necessarily that you’re evil or bad if you’re in prison. There’s some connection there to the family history of concentration camps, something about prisons being approachable or oddly familiar. Normally prison in this country is a huge class difference; someone with my educated upper-middle class background would not otherwise think of prison in an open-minded way.

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Drew Himmelstein
Drew Himmelstein

Drew Himmelstein is a former J. reporter who writes about education, families and Jewish life. She lives with her husband and two sons.