For 20 years, Marianne Tanis has been teaching art classes for inmates at Earnest C. Brooks Correctional Facility in Muskegon, Mich., and recently exhibited some of her students’ art at First Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids. Tanis said the exhibit was set up to give her own church an idea of the volunteer work she does in prison, but it also shows the impact art has had on the lives of the artists.
In a recent church newsletter, Tanis noted that art teaches many life lessons and has become a way for the inmates to redeem time, to problem-solve, and to find hope and gratitude in a hard place to live. They find that there is grace, mercy, and forgiveness in art, just as in their own lives.
“A flawed piece can be worked on to improve it instead of simply giving up and throwing it away,” Tanis said.
During a viewing session for the congregation, Tanis shared the stories behind some of the art on exhibit. She noted that “four of the men represented in this show are serving life sentences, and all have experienced transformation.”
Tanis’ art classes came about after one experience of sharing the creative expression of drawing. She and her husband Larry have been leading worship services in prisons for 25 years. At one of those services, she suggested to an inmate struggling with depression and rejection that he begin drawing to express himself. He did and then eagerly sought her critique of his work each week. The chaplain noticed and offered Tanis the opportunity to teach weekly art classes at the prison. Initially concerned that she had a degree in art but not in teaching, she has since discovered that God had a plan, and the experience continues to be humbling and joy-filled for her and the students.
One frustration she faces is that students can be abruptly transferred to another correctional facility at any time, but she hopes they will continue using the language of art to express themselves.
The exhibit remains at First CRC through January.