Prison Art: Letters From Inside

Studio 360

My sister, a psychiatrist, has been collecting the work of untrained artists for as long as I can remember, and travels to New York every January for the Outsider Art Fair. This year, I tagged along and discovered Phyllis Kornfeld's Inside/Outside Envelope Project.

Kornfeld has been teaching visual arts to men and women in prisons for 26 years --- but making elaborately illustrated envelopes has been a long-standing tradition for prisoners, who send them to loved ones on the outside. Inmates in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Florida, and California anonymously donate their work to Kornfeld, who sells it to benefit Read Alliance, a non-profit that hires teens to teach at-risk kindergarten and first-grade kids how to read. The envelopes sell for $20-$100 and no two are alike.

These drawings, usually intended for parents, friends, and other special recipients, are intensely personal and absorbing --- I lost track of time staring at each one (Kornfeld had about 200 on display at the fair). Even though the pictures are drawn on common envelopes, the stories transported me inside the prison, inside the prisoner, and revealed a vivid world that surprised me.

Slideshow: Work from the Inside/Outside Envelope Project

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