Art Behind Bars
Piece by piece, Fort Ord's abandoned military prison gets a new life as an anti-crime art exhibition.
Thursday, November 16, 2000
Left: For the past year, Bob Gillard has been restoring the prison at Fort Ord. Right: ''Inmates'' constructed by artist E. Thogmartin will inhabit the cell blocks.
Robert Gillard is painting the prison walls. For months he''s been cleaning, stripping and restoring these walls, and finally the end is in sight-he''s in the homestretch of a dream that has been 10 years in the making.
"We''re doing something that''s never been done in the art world before," he says.
"Something" is a powerful anti-crime art exhibition entitled "Walking the Wire" that will eventually open to the public inside Fort Ord''s Installation Detention Facility (IDF)-the former prison that Gillard spends all his free hours restoring.
For the past several years, a smaller version of "Walking the Wire" has made its home in Gillard''s garage/studio in his hometown of Grants Pass, Oregon. Subtitled "A Journey Through the World of Incarceration," the exhibit has been seen by many people, including law enforcement officials, educators, museum directors and elected officials. All have had high praise for the show and agree it would be an effective deterrent against juvenile crime.
But to be most effective, "Walking the Wire" needs a permanent home where it can be seen and experienced by greater numbers of youth-and what better space for an anti-crime art exhibit than in an authentic prison?
Gillard, who lives with his wife in Grants Pass, is an independent auto transporter. Last year he happened to deliver a new car to Alexander Kerekes, chief of Presidio of Monterey Police Department. The two men struck up a conversation and discovered they had a lot in common: Both want to do something about the growing numbers of kids who end up in prison, and both believe the arts can be a powerful medium to connect with youth. When they parted ways, Gillard had a new ally.
"Mr. Gillard is definitely a one-man show," Chief Kerekes says admiringly. "He has done this on his own time, with his own money, and his own sweat. I''ve been able to support him with a little manpower, storage and assistance, [but] I really think that the next leap forward in that exhibit is to have some kind of community group involved."
Through the Fort Ord Reuse Authority (FORA), Kerekes helped Gillard obtain a free two-year lease to the IDF, a maximum-security prison that Chief Kerekes calls "typical of the military stockades of the time that have barbed wire and guard towers around it, it could hold several hundred prisoners."
Gillard''s mission is to restore the prison to a positive incarnation of its former self. When it''s finished, it will be an interactive art exhibition that will show, as graphically as possible, what incarceration is really like. Its aim is to discourage gang and juvenile violence by demonstrating, as Chief Kerekes succinctly puts it, "that there''s no glamour in crime and the consequences are fairly grim."
Gillard''s vision for the IDF exhibition incorporates performance and visual art, actors and audio special effects. Volunteers from the community, including youth and former gang members, will play the parts of prisoners and guards. When school buses arrive on the site, they will be greeted by volunteer "guards" stationed at the prison entrance, who will search the bus for weapons. "Prisoners" will wear jump-suits, hand-cuffs and leg irons. As visitors go on guided tours of the cell blocks, the heavy bars will be slammed and locked behind them.
"It''s more than just art," explains Chief Kerekes, "it''s a wide scope, it means paintings, props and actors in costumes...An audio recording will have actual sounds of gates opening, locks being turned, people yelling, guards giving commands, things being said over the loudspeaker."
It''s a unique blueprint for an art exhibition, and a listener can''t help but be infected by Gillard''s enthusiasm. "I have ten years worth of passion involved in this show," he says. "I just always wanted to do something with my partner before we got too old, to make a difference with some kids," he says.
His partner is the sculptor and installation artist E. Thogmartin, who also lives in Grants Pass. Gillard says that Thogmartin, whose brother is a prison minister, has "always made art for causes. He only sells his stuff to buy tools."
Thogmartin is the artistic genius behind the exhibition''s installations, which incorporate collage, poetry, stories and photographs. He is also creating lifesize "prisoners" to inhabit the cell blocks. And he made by hand, with hammer and chisel, the exhibition''s 65 stone sculptures, artworks that are by turns chilling and beautiful: each a stunning impressionistic rendering of the facts of life behind bars-racism, fear and brutality.
"Walking the Wire" has many more elements in the works: murals being done by a young Santa Cruz spray paint artist; a floor of photo blow-ups; an "America''s Most Wanted" wall with wanted posters of fugitives; a memorial wall for slain police officers, and another for victims of violent crime. The prison''s entrance room is being painted to resemble a gang funeral. Three of the room''s walls and its ceiling will be printed with the names of 600 children who were killed by guns in one year. (Oregon congressman Carl Wilson, who saw the Grants Pass version of this children''s casualty list, called it as "heartrending" as the Vietnam Memorial.)
There are also smaller-scale installations such as a display of shivs-crude homemade knives-made by Thogmartin that silently illustrate the desperation and brutality of the prison environment.
The centerpiece of the exhibit, however, is a realistic execution chamber. In the middle of the main room, inside a glass-paneled hexagonal chamber sits a 1920s-era wooden electric chair. Emblazoned on the floor around it are words such as MURDER, FEAR, HATE, TERROR. When the prison''s electricity is turned on, an animated large-format hologram of a prisoner will sit in the chair looking out at viewers.
"I don''t want to give the impression this is a horror show," Gillard cautions, "although there is horror here. The main focus of this production is to educate the kids. By bringing them to this prison they''ll never want to go to another one."
A large, bright room, the former prison chapel, will become the "Choices" auditorium, a crucial part of the exhibit where guest speakers will offer kids positive role models and teach them about the career, educational, economic, and social alternatives to crime. The two-story prison has former dayrooms and other spaces that won''t be needed by the art exhibition, and Gillard plans to invite community groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Mothers Against Drunk Driving to use them.
Since 1995, Gillard and Thogmartin have been established as a 501(c) nonprofit called Anti-Crime Art Productions. To date, however, "Walking the Wire" has been done without outside funding of any kind. "I have gotten many things," Gillard says, "but I''ve never gotten any money to finish projects with."
There have been several important donations: A company in the Midwest donated 156 gallons of stucco stone mastic (used to make the concrete-like installations), which Gillard drove to St. Paul, Minn., to pick up. And the most valuable donation was the animated holograph of the Death Row prisoner, created by Holographics North, a Vermont company that makes the largest holograms in the world and has made images for the Smithsonian and other museums around the country.
"Walking the Wire" has no set opening date, although Chief Kerekes says they hope to do at least an initial showing in January. "It''s been an uphill battle in terms of getting sponsorship," he says. What Gillard needs most now, he adds, is sweat equity.
"When the stockade closed," the chief explains, "it was fully functional and operational, and now because of vandalism it''s in dire straits." Windows have been broken out; porcelain toilets smashed, holes broken in walls. Compounding the damage, pigeons have been roosting inside the prison; in some areas, Gillard says, the floors are four inches deep in feathers and bird debris.
Since Sept. ''99, Gillard has been almost singlehandedly doing the dirty work himself. Piece by piece, he has brought the sculptures and installations to Ford Ord from Oregon in his truck. When asked to estimate the numbers of hours he''s spent at the prison, cleaning and painting, sweeping broken glass, moving in installations and doing the myriad other tasks necessary for transforming the IDF into an art exhibition, he shakes his head. It just doesn''t matter.
He gave up on trying to organize volunteers because it took too much of his time and much of the promised help never materialized. "I''ll do it myself," he says without a trace of resentment. "It''s just going to take me longer."
One wouldn''t blame Bob Gillard if he had an occasional dark night of the soul in the face of what looks like an uphill battle. Yet he seems indefatigable. What keeps him going?
The question makes him laugh. "I can''t help it," he says frankly. "I know it''s going to work. It''s going to help a lot of kids and I''m going to finish it."
Individuals, community groups or businesses interested in donating labor, materials, vehicles or funding can call Bob Gillard at (541) 944-4892 or Chief Alexander Kerekes at 242-7007. All donations are tax-deductible.