In bare feet and purple sequined overalls, Maria Anasazi stood next to a collection of mixed media pieces in the midst of getting them framed and on the wall of the Delaplaine Visual Arts Education Center last week. Her black hair jetted out from a fushia headwrap as she explained that artists are usually not exactly mainstream people but live their lives somewhere along the margins of society.
Although a longtime professional artist herself, who received a Master's in art and has exhibited her own work several times, Ansazi now teaches various groups how to use art as a healing modality and is as psyched, if not more, to be showing the work of regional female inmates she led recently. In the exhibit, "Forms of Identity," female inmates used clothing as the catalyst for exploration into their own lives.
"I teach how to create," Anasazi explained, her eyes passing over the various pieces. "The project comes out of them."
She did post-graduate studies in psychology and said she's interested in "how art heals, where creativity comes from and how we work with it.
"My, well, we'll call it 'dream,' was to work in jails," she said.
Working independently and relying on grants, Anasazi has been artist in residence at various locations throughout the past decade, after moving to Maryland from San Francisco. She has worked in prisons, juvenile detention centers, schools, hospitals, homeless shelters, and, she said, wherever there is a strong community. She's willing to go anywhere and is currently living in West Philadelphia after being awarded studio space for a year through the University of Pennsylvania.
"Forms of Identity" is presented by Project Youth ArtReach, of Class Acts Arts, Inc., a program based in Silver Spring that brings arts-based experiences to people in correctional facilities.
Claire Schwadron, director of Project Youth ArtReach, saw Anasazi doing a sewing project in Wilmington, Del., with a group of homeless women and wanted to recreate the experience with women prisoners in Maryland.
Because they would be restricted by materials, they needed some creative planning to convince the Montgomery County Correction Facility to let them carry out their idea. They were able to use plastic needles and children's scissors. A lot of their decisions, like this one, are collaborative -- Anasazi provides the initial creative rush; Schwadron, the feasibility, organization and practicality.
"Limitations sometimes make you more creative," Anasazi pointed out.
In addition to sewing tools, she brought a wide variety of random items for the mixed media projects: cloth, sequins, fabric flowers and leaves, paper.
"It's best to present a lot of different materials," she said, "because people identify with colors, shapes, fabrics, beads."
She got a request to bring in real hair, which she did.
"They really relish the opportunity to touch other materials, paint," Schwadron said. "Of course, it's pretty colorless in there."
Anasazi provided outlines of little girls, which would serve as the basis for the collages. This way, inmates wouldn't have to draw their own, Anasazi pointed out; she was not there to teach anyone how to draw. She asked them to create pictures of themselves as children, to play with the image and think about a how their childhood affected them.
"They have so many issues," Anasazi said. "It's not an easy environment. I wanted them to have fun. ... I wanted them to think of themselves as a kid."
Because the inmates start their projects without thinking, she allows times for reflection afterwards. The pieces are given titles and words.
She explains that the first project was just practice; after that, they will move to a bigger piece.
One of the pairs in the exhibit shows a pig-tailed "fancy, sexy little girl," Ansazi described. "(The inmate) got into becoming an adult a little early on. ... She didn't really get to enjoy being a child."
This particular inmate wrote a short poem after titling her piece "Growing up."
Growing up too fast.
Young girl live your life while it lasts.
Take time out to enjoy your youth.
It does not last forever I tell you the truth.
For the second part of the project, inmates were invited to create an item of clothing that would more or less represent where they are now, where they see themselves or would like to be.
For "Growing up," the inmate chose to make a skirt that would include photos of all the people who supported her through difficult periods. Black and white photocopies of pictures, cut into small circles, dot the sheer brown fabric between small stitching in purple and pink enroidery floss. Underneath is a layer of mesh and an actual skirt pattern.
In the past, inmates have made dresses and shawls.
"Clothing is identity," Ansazi said. "It's almost like a skin between you and community."
Alison Lehner, program assistant for Project Youth ArtReach, said, "People from very different backgrounds and age groups can relate to the theme."
Another skirt was made by a woman in her 60s who did not speak any English. Her piece, "Roses and Thorns," reflected her life as a series of good and bad things. As she said, seven years of happiness, seven years of difficulty; seven years of happiness, seven years of difficulty. She drew a crown made of thorns, which Ansazi photocopied.
"She was evidently a seamstress, so she had a vision," Schwadron said, who witnessed the piece being made at MCCF.
The piece "The Lost Dream" shows a young girl colored teal with bright pink leaves that dangle from her waist like a grass skirt and three-dimensional silver stars that hang above her head. Based on an actual childhood dream, the piece was completed when the MCCF inmate wrote, "The girl is in a dream state outdoors, looking to the sky for answers." For phase two, the piece was replicated into a larger version with antique silk.
Schwadron, who acts as a liason between professional artists and venues, said that Project Youth ArtReach aims to show inmates how to take healthy risks and that there's an appropriate way to communicate anger and depression.
"It's very important to me, personally," Anasazi said about her role. "It's a challenge, but I get to be part of a community. That's what I love to do. There's a lot of exchange going on."
Growing up in Greece, Anasazi didn't have art classes, though she always did art on her own.
"This is how I feel displaced in this culture. There are always feelings of loss."
Ansazi explained that in her own work, mostly mixed media sculpture, loss is a common theme, because of feeling displaced in this culture. In this way, she can relate to inmates.
"I try to be in the same kind of place they are," Anasazi said. "Blur the boundaries." -- "I'm very open when I talk to them. I talk about facts."
When people ask if she's ever had the experience herself of being imprisoned, Ansazi says not the actual eperience of being in jail, but that we are all in "our own little prisons," in a sense.
"It's a way of life for me, art," she said. "Everything I do is pretty much art. It's my way of receiving and sharing information at the same time. And for me, it's a connection, to myself, first of all."
She said she uses art to work with ideas, trying to somehow address or define her experiences. However, "there's no answers in art," she insisted. "We're not scientists. It's intuitive."
What: "Forms of Identity" -- Maria Anasazi, with women from Maryland correctional facilities, presented by Project Youth ArtReach of Class Acts Arts, Inc.
When: Through Sept. 29. Gallery hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday.
Where: The Delaplaine Visual Arts Education Center, 40 S. Carroll St., Frederick