This is the second year in a row that I have had the privilege of working with students at the Elmira Alternative High School on an arts in education project where they read a book and use it as a point of departure for their own poetry and visual art. This year the book they have been reading is the intense true story of Kevin Davis called Zebratown. It is written by Greg Donaldson and set mostly in Elmira, New York. Elmira is home to a maximum security prison that houses inmates from all over New York state. From the prison, Kevin Davis looks down on the town of Elmira and thinks it looks peaceful and imagines living there in freedom one day. Eventually he does. Zebratown focuses on a part of his life where he moves in with a white single mom and their struggle to make their lives and relationship work.
The book was hugely engaging and I read it in three days. But when I finished, I felt thoroughly depressed. I sat down and started making notes about the values of the main characters in the story, making thumbnail sketches to represent these values and try to make sense of this work of tragedy. I was thinking about representing a person by showing the layers of experience, the goals, dreams and values, as well as an image of their physical presence; a personal palimpsest. When I met with students on the first day, I asked them to make some simple sketches of their values and I gave a lesson in drawing faces using charcoal. Later we would combine these images using paint on canvas.