Tonight: Monroe Prison Art on Display at Vermillion on Capitol Hill

Renzi Art.jpg
Photo by Keegan Hamilton
Monroe inmate Renzi Lumen.
For this week's arts section, we took a trip to the Washington State Reformatory in Monroe, the same prison where guard Jayme Biendl was murdered by inmate Byron Scherf earlier this year. The killing, though, was not the subject of our story. Instead we focused on a program called University Beyond Bars--specifically, an art class that features a dozen inmates who, thanks to their teacher, will have their work exhibited tonight at Vermillion Art Gallery and Wine Bar.

The show is titled Non-Sufficient Funds, an allusion to the message stamped on prison correspondence when an inmate doesn't have the money to cover postage. It also doubles as a statement about the amount of tax dollars spent on prisons, and, since all proceeds from the art sales will be donated to University Beyond Bars (UBB), as a clever way of saying "Please, for the love of God, give us some money to help us purchase books and art supplies."

UBB is a small nonprofit that operates only at Monroe, offering college-level instruction to about 120 prisoners, about half of whom are serving life sentences with no chance of parole. Art supplies are precious commodities in the class, and some artists say they sometimes sell their work to other inmates and pay out of their own pockets to buy more canvases and paint. Other times they adhere to the old adage of "reduce, reuse, recycle."

At one point during my visit to the classroom in Monroe, teacher Peter Brook and two of his prisoner pupils were trying to decide what to do with a half-finished work that had been left behind when the artist was transferred to another prison. The piece included dollar bills, the Sureño gang symbol, and a two-faced image that, according to the other inmates, symbolized life and death.

Renzi Lumen, a Filipino serving a lengthy sentence for an attempted murder and robbery he committed when he was 17, tried to convince another Filipino inmate/artist named Mark Millano to leave the unfinished painting as it is. Brook, the teacher, suggested that they complete the piece themselves.

"That's his painting, man," Lumen said adamantly. "That's his life. I don't want to paint over it."

After a little back-and-forth debate, they elected to leave the painting as it is. Then, half an hour later, the two Filipinos were busying applying a thick layer of beige paint to obscure the original image. Asked what made him change his mind, Lumen replied with a shrug, "We need the canvas."

The opening reception for Non-Sufficient Funds is tonight from 5-9 p.m. Admission is free. Read our story, "Insider Art," and then check out a slideshow of the inmates and their art.

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