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Rising Stars: Meet Annie Buckley and Mark Taylor of Prison Arts Collective

Today we’d like to introduce you to Annie Buckley and Mark Taylor.

Annie and Mark, we appreciate you taking the time to share your story with us today. Where does your story begin?
Annie: I have been an artist for as long as I can remember. Also, I have always been passionate about social justice and equity, even though I didn’t know the words for these concepts when I was growing up. This foundation and love for both art and community led me to create the program that is now Prison Arts Collective.

I started it when I was a faculty member at CSU San Bernardino and brought it with me to San Diego State in 2019, when I was hired as the Director of the School of Art and Design.

Initially, my goal was to expand access to the transformative power of the arts in the local community and to provide real world learning experiences for my students at the university. We began in 2013 with 7 university students and about 25 men who are incarcerated at one prison in Chino. We didn’t have any funding for the first two years and everything was done on a volunteer and donation basis.

Currently, we provide programming in 17 facilities in 12 state prisons and have partnerships with 4 California State University campuses. Since 2013, we have had 5,437 people who are incarcerated participate in our programs. We are supported by Arts in Corrections, a collaboration of the California Arts Council and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation as well as the National Endowment for the Arts.

Mark: I did not have a genuine appreciation for art until I participated in Prison Arts Collective. I became involved with PAC while I was serving a life sentence at Ironwood State Prison in Blythe, California. At the time I was lucky enough to enroll in the program, I had already served 20 years of a 26 year-to-life sentence. To my surprise, this program was about much more than art. It was about healing, community, self-expression, empowerment, and exploration. When you are in prison, not only are you physically captive, your mind is captive as well.

Art helps your mind free itself from the psychological chains that oftentimes accompany incarceration. After graduating from PAC, I was blessed with the opportunity to facilitate classes while I was still incarcerated. Once I was paroled, I stayed in contact with the participants and PAC staff, including Professor Annie Buckley, and I was able to work with colleagues to start a new chapter of PAC at Humboldt State University, where I am now a student in Social Work. Healthy support networks, such as PAC’s, help individuals such as myself, successfully reintegrate into society. For that, I am eternally grateful.

I’m sure you wouldn’t say it’s been obstacle free, but so far would you say the journey have been a fairly smooth road?
Annie: In some ways, yes, but overall, no. Every step of the way has been a joy because the people that we work with in and out of prison all have something special to offer and are all so passionate about making our world a better place. Ours is a very collaborative effort that could not exist without many people working together. This isn’t necessarily always smooth, but collaboration is one of the most beautiful and vital aspects of this project.

Some of the struggles have been trying to understand the varying needs and interests of our many stakeholders in and out of the prison. Also, we have had to adapt art projects so that they can be taught with the materials allowed. And finally, during the past year, our team came together to figure out how to translate our visual and multidisciplinary arts classes into distance learning packets to send by mail.

Mark: As is the case with life in general, things are not always smooth. Adjusting to the pandemic has been difficult. I am spearheading the expansion of PAC into Pelican Bay State Prison, which is California’s only super-maximum security prison. COVID-19 protocols have slowed progress. But we are nearing full implementation. We have been working with prison officials to determine how many people can be in each class. Our intent is to serve as many people as possible. The first cycle will be mostly correspondence, unless the COVID-19 infection rates continue to decrease. I am optimistic that they will. Until then, we will have to engage the students through correspondence courses. The whole world had to adjust to the pandemic–PAC included.

Alright, so let’s switch gears a bit and talk business. What should we know about your work?
Prison Arts Collective (PAC) is based on the belief that art is a human right and the capacity of art to cultivate community and positive change.

Through multidisciplinary art classes, guest artist workshops, and Arts Facilitator Training for incarcerated peer-leaders, PAC works to expand access to the transformative power of the arts through collaboration and mutual learning. This programming supports the development of self-expression, reflection, communication, and empathy in correctional institutions and the justice-impacted community.

PAC is dedicated to expanding access to the transformative power of art to people experiencing incarceration through unique partnerships with California state universities. PAC is headquartered at San Diego State University has partnerships with CSU Fullerton, Humboldt State University, and CSU San Bernardino. Through University-prison partnerships, PAC draws on the expertise and research of faculty, the energy and enthusiasm of students and artists in and out of prison, and a dedicated staff to provide visual and interdisciplinary arts programming in California prisons.

What makes you happy?
Annie: It makes me happy to see people that care about one another and about our world come together to do something positive. In our PAC classes, one of the highlights is witnessing a participant that is incarcerated try something they didn’t think they could do, succeed, and be able to see another more positive aspect of themselves, their skills and talents and what they have to offer. For example, some participants in our Arts Facilitator Training program — in which we offer people in prison the tools to lead their own art classes — start off thinking that they will never be able to teach. By the end, they complete their final project — teaching their peers and teachers a dynamic arts lesson — and it is a joy to see them beaming, finding strengths they didn’t know they had.

Mark: Being a part of a community that respects the dignity of all human beings, including our incarcerated community members, is what makes me happy.

I had the opportunity to see the positive impact this program has had on people who are incarcerated while I was incarcerated. The resilience of PAC students is a source of deep inspiration to me. To see beautiful artistic expression in dark places clearly illustrates the capacity of the mind to transcend physical barriers. To witness that is incredible.

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Image Credits

Peter Merts

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