VIDEO: Therapeutic art program at SCI helps prisoners cope

Magnificent works of art, that many never even get to lay eyes on, are being created behind bars at the Sussex Correctional Institute.

WDEL's Amy Cherry takes an in-depth look.

"A lot of 'em come in the program, have never picked up a paintbrush or pencil."

But you'd certainly never know it, when you walk into the nondescript classroom at Sussex Correctional Institute that quickly brightens on Fridays. The room is full of colorful works of art-paintings, sketches, and oil pastels, pristine enough to cover the walls of any museum.

Here, 21 prisoners have found a reawakening, a sense of purpose, and more importantly, a chance to express themselves through a therapeutic art program.

William Scott says he had to learn a new way since he got locked up. The old way of alcohol, drugs, and violence is how he ended up behind bars. Now, he finds his escape through art, something he wishes he would've figured out earlier.

"Since I was a kid, it's been my niche. Now, I'm just using it in a positive manner," says Scott.

He was working on a portrait of an older man, using neon pinks, purples and yellows; when I first saw it the man had a dark black hole for an eye--by the time I left, it was tiny specs of colors almost creating an optical illusion, but as for the emotion, there was no doubt.

"A little bit of pain, a little bit of joy. It really just speaks to what's in your heart. A lot of us, our crimes precede us. Through my art, I'm giving you another glimpse of me, besides what the paper says I am," says William Scott.

Scott is like so many others in this class in desperate need of a moment of clarity and an inkling of independence. Chase Fehrenbach ((BACH--the composer)) finds it every Friday in this art room.

He calls the release "invaluable," as he works diligently on works of art for his love back home, Christa. He's crafting a shadowed yet somehow bright silhouette of a time long ago--Chase and Christa at their high school prom. He hopes she'll take it with her when she goes abroad soon.

"I like to lavish her with what I can, and unfortunately in here, I'm old afforded my talents and abilities," says Fehrenbach.

Russell Sullivan's pieces all depict some kind of fantasy world--a world far from the life Sullivan lives.

"Escapism, I like the medieval thing kind of too, and I also like super heroes. I do a lot of those; I guess I never grew up," laughs Sullivan.

You can see 70 pieces of the prisoners' artwork at the Millsboro Art League, where it's been on display for a month. Nancy Thomas is the Coordinator of the Therapeutic Art Class.

"In Millsboro, they told me, that was the biggest turnout for any reception they've had ever, and they were so impressed with the artwork. They said it's as good as anything they have down there on a normal basis," says Thomas.

And the pieces are getting snatched up by the public, fetching some big bucks, and that money goes back to the prisoners like Randolph Graham.

"Between, $100-125. It's more than any job I can make in here," says Graham.

Graham, a longtime artist, does all kinds of commissioned art while in prison. He was working on a piece for a church. He also did a very intricate piece for the VETERANS...that's now selling prints like wildfire.

"56 hours drawing it. I combined every war from like WWII to present day all in one big picture," Graham says.

William Smiley gets out in 18 months and hopes to get a degree in graphic design. For now, it's an outlet.

"So now, I just use it as a coping mechanism. I get angry, I'll turn around and go draw a picture, sit down and just doodle, or anything just to calm down and collect my thoughts," Smiley says,

Smiley's pieces are being bought up at the art show.

"It was a real shocker to see that somebody liked it enough out on the street to go and buy it," Smiley says.

Thomas looks around the room trying to figure out what she'll buy next.

And many of these inmates, Lawrence Dickens, Charles Blizzard, and Ricky Hickman just have what artists call "the eye."

"If I see it, I know I can create it," says Dickens.

"I know I can draw anything I lay eyes on," says Hickman.

"God didn't make no dummies. Whatever a machine can do, man should be able to do. So man created the camera, so anything that camera can do, I should be able to do," Blizzard says.

Hickman had no idea he could be an artist.

"I never had the time to draw in the streets so I just found out I could draw since I've been here," Hickman says,

He was working on freaky vampire like piece, and without art class he says his life...

"It would probably looks like this picture. I stay upset a lot, blaming myself for allowing me to come in here, something stupid," he says,

And they almost all agreed without this class...

"It'd be kind of drab," says Bruce White.

"It would be bland," says Graham.

"It would be a big hole," says William Brocklehurst.

The prisoners don't get to see their work at the Millsboro art show, but they know that a piece of them is out of there.

"Yeah, exactly. It's out of my brain," says Scott.

The paintings were a far cry from abstract or stick figure sketches. They speak louder, in fact, are shouting the emotions from these mens' hearts--in a way that will shock and surprise you, as a smile curls across your lips.

"It just speaks a lot toward what man is capable of inside of what society would say is such a dark place. I mean you see all the colors," says Scott.

You've gone one week left to see their artwork. For information, visit the Millsboro Art League.

Copyright © Jan 28, 2015, WDEL/Delmarva Broadcasting Company. All Rights Reserved.
Advanced permission from Delmarva Broadcasting Company required for publication or rebroadcast.