The Whole Goodness of the Universe
Interview with Phyllis Kornfeld
by Julie Broccoli
Featured in Mountain Record 27.2, Winter 2008
Julie: As an artist and art teacher who has been bringing art into the prison and jail systems of this country for 25 years, do you actually call yourself an art teacher?
Phyllis: I am called an art teacher, but I call myself a facilitator. What I do is run an art class, but I'm not teaching in any conventional sense.
J: So you started not teaching art inside prisons in 1983.
P: I started teaching, but I went quickly to not teaching.
J: Can you talk more about that?
P: In 1983, I heard there was a job in the Oklahoma state penitentiaries, teaching painting and drawing to men and women inmates. Having taught in more traditional settings and still dissatisfied, this sounded very intriguing. I applied for the work and got the job. I had a very conventional education—a Master's degree in Art Education. Most of my friends were painters. I knew all the rules and principles of art, and I had painted my whole life. So I went in there with a pretty ordinary idea of how I was going to teach art: still life, wine glass and grapes, and that kind of thing. I started at Joseph Harp Correctional Center, a medium security men's prison in Lexington, Oklahoma. The first day, these full of incredible artwork they had created with whatever they could get their hands on: paper rescued from the trash, bits and pieces of colored pencil, ballpoint pens. The work was amazing. So it was easy to see that I couldn't go along with the idea that I was the artist, that I knew everything and they were these empty slates, poor students who knew nothing. But what they were creating actually came from a deeper place than what I was doing at the time. At the time I couldn't have articulated what I was seeing. There was no Outsider Art that I had heard of, at least not in Oklahoma. So I didn't know what to call it, but I saw that it was authentic, and it was magnificent, and there was no self-consciousness. It was completely different from anything I had seen.
When I worked in maximum security, the guard would announce, "Art teacher on the tier." The men were locked up for most of the day. I would be shown to the end of the tier where the cells were and into a small classroom. The men who participated were handcuffed and escorted to the art room, and they were locked inside with me, still cuffed. They each backed up to a sort of waist-level trap-door where the officer unlocked their cuffs. I was in there with them for a couple of hours. That was an amazing experience, because these guys were supposed to be the worst—the baddest of the bad. The creativity was really intense. It was amazing. None of them were experienced in art, but the work that came out of that unit was extraordinary.