CONCORD, NH — The artists are beaming as they talk about their finished mural: a spray-painted colorful tree with a clock at its center, a dark cityscape to the right with a yellow brick road leading away from it and, to the left, a brightly colored background for a birdcage, its door open with a dove flying toward it.
In another room, another team of women artists is working on a second mural, this one featuring a butterfly with a giant eye and the beginnings of a backdrop reminiscent of Van Gogh’s Starry Nights.
The tree mural covers an entire cinder-block wall of the day yard of the Reception & Diagnostic (R&D) unit while the other is being painted on a wall of another day yard in the Secure Management Unit (SMU) at the New Hampshire Correctional Facility for Women.
The incarcerated women came up with the designs and then did the spray-painting, after a week of instruction and help from Manny Ramirez of Positive Street Art in Nashua, who the prison hired to teach the women.
“Art is my passion,” says Katie. She says it is something she always turned to in times of upset. Photography is another passion of hers, she said, admitting she was excited when news photographers arrived to record their artwork.
“It made us all feel we accomplished something,” says Holly, of the mural. She has been imprisoned for 10 months and has another year left on her sentence. “We don’t have a lot to do here.”
She said the women were proud of what they created and are hoping there will be other projects in the future.
They said presently only those in R&D, where prisoners first arrive at the facility and remain for 30 days until they are assigned to a unit, and those in SMU can see the artwork. They are hoping the mural painting project will be expanded to other areas of the prison so those in the general population — where all these artists are housed — will be able to see the artwork.
They would like to paint murals in the visitors’ room so family and friends will be able to view the creations.
The idea for the art project began after Commissioner Helen Hanks attended a conference where she learned that studies showed that artwork is a way to calm down prisoners.
The New Hampshire State Council on the Arts’ Percent for Art Program, a state law enacted in 1979, dedicates half of one percent of the cost of construction of any new state building to be used for the acquisition or commission of artwork. The prison was completed in 2018 with $75,000 allocated for the art fund. The Northern New Hampshire Correctional Facility, built in 2000, also was eligible for the funding.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity for the women to learn to express themselves,” says Warden Joanne Fortier. “It also provides them with a new skill. We do plan to offer it again to another group of women.”
Those projects would involve painting a wall in the prison’s other two remaining day yards, she says.
The R&D and SMU day yards were chosen first, Fortier says, because the intent of the art was to produce a calming effect in the units.
A total of five women worked on the tree mural three hours a day for a week, after a week of coming up with the design and instruction from Ramirez in spray-painting.
Three of the women who worked on the tree mural talked with reporters. They worked together to come up with the design with each one providing some aspect to it. Katie wanted the dark cityscape with the yellow brick road leading away from it and the North Star in the sky.
“I always felt the yellow brick road was a symbol of hope,” she said.
Holly, who paints and writes, says working on the art piece “actually calmed me down a lot.” She says the work is open to interpretation: coming out of the darkness of the cityscape and into the light. Her part of the design was the tree and the open door of the birdcage, symbolizing the release of all the bad and letting in all the good.
“No matter what darkness there is, there is always going to be a better day,” Holly says.
Nicole says it was the most intensive project she ever did. “It brings tears to my eyes,” she says. “We’re very grateful for Manny.”
Her input was the clock and birdcage. The clock symbolizes the passing of time and is set at 7 p.m., the international hour of peace, she says.
“In here, you either make time or lose time,” she says.
All three women say they would “absolutely” want to work on other projects.
“Art, to me, is the best therapy,” Holly says.
In the other day yard, the smell and sounds of shaken spray paint cans fill the air. The women are still working on the mural which should be done on Friday, Oct. 4.
Robin Langlois, who expects to be released in June, wears a protective paint mask as she works to detail a butterfly with an eye.
“We look to the future,” she says is the symbolism of the piece. “No matter where you are you can make beauty from a bad situation. You keep your eyes on the prize.”
Langlois said in the 2½years she has been in prison, she has been in school. The prison operates its own certified school called Granite State High School. “I am making good use of my time here,” Langlois says.