Dan Cooper: Insider art 

click to enlarge Multimedia artist Dan Cooper volunteers at CIF, offering artistic expertise to inmates. Photo by Mark Lee
  • Multimedia artist Dan Cooper volunteers at CIF, offering artistic expertise to inmates. Photo by Mark Lee

On Wednesday, June 8, at 6:30 p.m., Dan Cooper arrives at the entrance of the Correctional Industrial Facility (CIF), a medium security prison in Pendleton, Ind. After putting his art materials through an X-ray machine and submitting to a pat-down, he's escorted through the prison by a recreation department staffer into a vast courtyard. An austere chapel with an angular southward-facing window rises above the flat-roofed housing units surrounding the courtyard.

You might mistake this facility, if only for a moment, for a community college campus. But then you see the orderly lines of male inmates walking past guards after an evening count. A few minutes later, seven inmates file into the classroom where Cooper is waiting.

For an hour each Wednesday, Cooper volunteer teaches art class at CIF. The father of two grown sons, Cooper lives with his wife and youngest son on Indy's Northeast Side. He's a native Hoosier, born in Greensburg in 1959, and an avid sports enthusiast who has a penchant for mashing up serene Midwestern landscapes with the surreal in his own painting. He also teaches in a wide variety of media at the Indianapolis Art Center.

Cooper launches into a lesson involving the art of perspective, using the push handle of the classroom's glass door to illustrate. He assigns the task to his students for the evening: find a still life subject and draw it using pencil on paper.

One of the men in attendance is Chris Wilfong, 37, who's been in Cooper's class just five weeks. He's chosen as his still life subject a pair of sunglasses. Wilfong, convicted of robbery in 2006, once worked as a crew chief at Edwards Air Force Base in California. He speaks with intelligence and wit (of the southward-facing chapel, he says it has "poor fengshui"); once he starts drawing, it's clear he's quite talented.

"Everyone has to be an artist to get into this class," notes Cooper.

Meanwhile, Cooper's longer-term students — Marty Moore, Butch Slusser and Bill Bolton — are getting down to brass tacks, starting to paint with acrylic on canvas. It so happens that all three of these inmates are included in the Inside show running now through July 11 at the Indianapolis Art Center.

Marty Moore, who spends more time making finely-detailed wooden keepsake boxes, miniature grandfather clocks and the like than he does painting, has friends and family auction his work off on eBay. But today this compact and muscular 52-year-old, sporting a goatee and a wide variety of tattoos on his limbs, is unrolling a canvas that he's been working on. Then he starts to paint.

His canvas portrays a rural landscape, with a barn, bushes, and trees in the foreground. But the composition is flat — both the bushes and the tree lack a certain definition. Soon, Cooper is hovering over Moore's shoulder to give some criticism.

Moore, convicted for murder in 1993 — with a date set for release in July 2014 — has three paintings in the Inside show at the IAC; they're all self-portraits picturing his cat on his shoulder.

"Here's what I did," he says. "We were on lockdown. I've got a cat in my cell. And I had some pictures taken of me and the cat. So I tried this in colored pencil. That's my first one. And then I tried it again. And I did the cat in colored pencil and me in pencil. And my last drawing, it was all in pencil."

While Cooper looks over Moore's composition, Butch Slusser, a 57-year-old doing time for attempted murder, due to be released in December 2016 works on his own landscape. After painting a baby blue background, he brushes orange streaks across it. The painting starts to look vaguely Turneresque.

One thing that Cooper does with his students is show them paintings by prominent artists to see if they can develop creative sensibilities of their own by experimenting in a particular artist's style.

For Slusser, that artist is J.M.W. Turner.

Since Cooper showed him works by the 19th-century landscape and seascape painter, Slusser has painted a wide variety of seascapes. But he's also composed desertscapes, having become a fan of Louis L'Amour westerns.

When asked if he sells any of his paintings on eBay like fellow student Marty Moore, Slusser says, "I just give them away."

Cooper comes by to take a look at Slusser's composition, but instead of offering criticism — at this point, there's nothing really that needs it — he says, "Man, that reminds me of the fluorescent paint back in the '60s." Back then, Cooper says, his bedroom had "fishnet, tin speakers, and black light posters."

Slusser laughs.

Slusser's paintings in the Inside show include desert and seascapes but also a beautiful portrait of a yellow bird sitting on a branch, its beak pointed upwards against the backdrop of a reddish black sky.

He says of Cooper's teaching style: "A lot of times, I've thought, well it's finished. He'd point out a few things. I'd always have to agree with him. Dan's a good man."

The quietest man in the room is Bill Bolton, 58, who grew up in Brown County. He's hard at work on a landscape that he'd started the previous week; it features a mountainous landscape against a yellow sky. Bolton, who's serving time for dealing cocaine — and has a date set for release sometime in 2017 — is sweating profusely and occasionally beads of sweat drip down onto his canvas. (It's very hot in the room since CIF's air conditioning isn't working and it's likely these conditions will continue all summer.)

Bolton was inspired to paint while working for a farmer whose wife sat outside and composed landscapes. "I started painting cream cans and saws," he says. "I used to stand and watch her and watch her work on my lunch break. I started watching Bob Ross, too. He made it look so easy."

"Dan showed me one picture by [Russian modernist painter Wassily] Kandinsky," says Bolton. "I told Dan, I don't know what this is. I never studied abstract, didn't know nothing about it. Then I just got into it."

Looking at Bolton's works — and there are many in the Inside show — it's hard to believe that he's not at all acquainted with early-20th-century European art.

But these inmates wouldn't follow Cooper's instructions if they didn't trust him. In fact, they leave the job of titling their works to him.

(Slideshow) Prison Art
(Slideshow) Prison Art (Slideshow) Prison Art (Slideshow) Prison Art (Slideshow) Prison Art (Slideshow) Prison Art (Slideshow) Prison Art (Slideshow) Prison Art (Slideshow) Prison Art

(Slideshow) Prison Art

An assortment of artwork created by inmates of the Correctional Industrial Facility, a medium security prison in Pendleton, Ind.

By Hannah Fehrman

Click to View 15 slides


A friend of Cooper's, Sarah Getts, started inmate art program ten years ago, part of an outgrowth from her church group. She knew Dan as a co-leader of their kids' Cub Scouts troop. She asked Cooper if he was interested in helping her with the class; soon enough, he was teaching it on his own.

"It's been interesting to watch," she says, "because Dan starts the new guys out with just pencil and paper. And then he progresses to colored pencils, sometimes crayons... getting different media for them. And then he'll also bring in books from the library about different artists and then have them painting... taking on the style of their favorite artists. It's been a very rewarding avenue for me."

It's been about a year since she's been back to CIF to visit. "I'm excited for the guys because I know where they started," she says. "They look forward to it probably because Dan treats them just like he'd treat anyone else. They appreciate that they're in contact with someone real. He isn't there for any other reason than he enjoys being there."

One of Cooper's first students was a man who signs his paintings by his last name, Kerssemakers, who was already painting murals in CIF before Cooper started teaching his class. You can still see the murals along the interior walls of the facility.

"One thing you learn in my class is that you can't use any photos or magazines he had access to, to create original art," says Cooper. "Everything he was painting in murals was from pictures [such as those found in] National Geographic... After a while he realized from what he was hearing from the others is that he wasn't doing original art. And he realized that and he started taking the class until he was released."

Talking with Cooper, it's clear he loves teaching this class as much as his students enjoy being taught by him.

"I like working with people who are inclined towards something that they're already interested in," he says. "There's quite a bit of advantage that we're not dealing with limitations of class duration. We're working with some individuals over an extended period of time, all the way from a beginning level. I've had some opportunities where I could sort of test out some class ideas with them that I can in turn learn from to be able to use in classes at the Indianapolis Art Center."

"Understand, I also find it relaxing," he continues. "It was probably three or four months ago, I was in there, and they'd all come in and I said, 'Man, I'm so glad to be here,' and they kind of looked at me. 'It's really relaxing to come here,' and they were like, 'Are you crazy?' For me, I get a chance to come in and do art and talk about art."

For information on the exhibit at the Indianapolis Art Center, call 255-2464 or visit www.indplsartcenter.org.

For more on Dan Cooper, check out cooperfineart.com.

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