The healing power of art in a prison garden

Photo/Nick Lacy Judy Dworin Performance Project Ensemble in “Meditations from a Garden Seat”

A garden can be a great source of inspiration, hope and transformation as seeds grow into fruit-bearing plants and last season's perennials burst forth once again into bloom.

A garden is a profound metaphor for one's life journey, particularly when it's within the confines of a prison.

Such a garden exists at York Correctional Institution in Niantic, since 1917, when York was a farm prison where "wayward women" went to "mend their ways."

Recently, the garden has been a powerful source of healing and regeneration for some 30 incarcerated women. In tending the garden, they have tended to themselves, gently guided by dance-theater artist Judy Dworin, who has no doubt that creative self-expression can serve as a catalyst for change.

"Meditations from a Garden Seat," a multi-media performance piece, is the culmination of a residency that Judy Dworin Performance Project (JDPP) facilitated at York in 2011. Originally titled "The Great Garden," it was performed in the prison's school for more than 500 family members, invited guests and inmates. It will be presented at Hartford's Charter Oak Cultural Center, Nov. 1 to 3. Dworin hopes to bring the performance to a New London venue in the coming year.

Funded by private donations and state grants, for eight years JDPP has held residencies in the maximum security side of the prison. Dworin explains that the women write on a theme, which is then scripted and turned into a performance, incorporating movement, dance, song, even artwork.

"Meditations?" was conceived and developed with Kathy Borteck Gersten, Dworin's associate artistic director, the JDPP ensemble, and women formerly and currently incarcerated at York.

Dworin explains that the work also draws upon an essay by social critic Harriet Beecher Stowe, who had a great passion for gardens.

"It's interesting that she was this historic voice of emancipation and freedom and that she also loved gardens," Dworin says, quoting from Stowe's essay:

"For me the garden was a place of healing to the soul?.it brought comfort to the heart blistered by the sultry suns of life."

And so, the garden has been such a place of healing for women at York, Dworin observes.

Stowe's text heard in the sound score is spoken by Joan D. Hedrick, who won the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for her biography, "Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Life," and Charles A. Dana, history professor at Trinity College.

Kathleen Wyatt, a former York inmate, narrates the piece.

"I wanted to have a live voice of someone who had been in prison," Dworin says. "Kathy is a very prolific writer and performer of her writing."

Dworin knew from the start that she would develop this piece and perform it for audiences outside the prison.

"We have a very one-dimensional idea of how we see these women in prison-they are actually women of many capabilities," she says. "Any of my own preconceived notions (when I began the residencies) were dispelled really quickly.

"Prison is a microcosm for so many of the issues and problems in our culture," she adds. "I felt it was important to share that in some way for people on the outside."

Inside view

Kathleen Wyatt has been out of prison for three years. She was incarcerated at York for eight years for vehicular manslaughter, noting that she was high on prescription drugs at the time of the incident.

She makes no excuses; she doesn't attempt to sugarcoat it. "I killed somebody," she says. Never a day goes by that I forget it. But if I can change one life by telling my story, it won't be for naught."

Wyatt says that prison saved her life-and that the arts program at York was a big part of the reason. She has been sober for 11 years and has worked at the Connecticut Community for Addiction Recovery since soon after her release from prison.

She credits Joe Lee, the librarian at York, with creating the overall arts program that had such an impact on her life.

"There are so many fabulous programs," Wyatt says. "I was in my 40s when I went in and I was with all these young girls doing something that was so out of the box, something I never would have done. Mr. Lee is an amazing man, I was so lucky to have him in my life-and the other women were, too."

Wyatt was in Wally Lamb's writing program for six years prior to participating in the JDPP residency.

"Judy asked us to write something, and the next thing you know, it was turning into a performance," Wyatt recalls. "I knew there was healing in my writing. I had already discovered that. Judy's just brilliant. She would take our writing and put select music with our words, and then choreograph a dance with her dancers and inmates.

"While you're in prison, it's very hard. Most of the women have been abused-sexually, physically, emotionally and have very low, if any, self-esteem," Wyatt points out. "Some of the women who had a lot of pain would get up and perform (their writing).

"It was just amazing," she continues. "The women were isolated and kept pain to themselves-to put it into words and say it with no fear of punishment was a very powerful thing."

Wyatt wrote a poem in prison titled "Love Letters" that she calls her "claim to fame." She has recited it at the podium at various universities and theaters in Connecticut, but says that she has never done anything as big as this performance at Charter Oak Cultural Center, which will incorporate her poem and other writings, including a piece inspired by the prison garden.

Wyatt refers to the other women in prison as her sisters. She says that when she went back to York to be in a performance, her friends cried and said it was the best Christmas present they ever had-that she was an inspiration for them.

"York is not a country club; far from a country club," Wyatt stresses. "But something awful happened in my life and prison saved my life, and hopefully, I can save other lives, also. I was treated like a human being, valued, learned about myself, and through writing, I was able to work through my pain. It absolutely changed me. I'm 180 percent different than the woman who walked into prison. I don't even recognize that woman.

"Make sure your life is a shining example, always," she says.

IF YOU GO

What: Judy Dworin Performance Project presents "Meditations from a Garden Seat"

When: Thursday through Saturday, Nov. 1 to 3 at 7:30 p.m.

Where: Charter Oak Cultural Center, 21 Charter Oak Ave., Hartford

How much: General admission: $25, $15 seniors, $10 students.

More information: www.charteroakcenter.org or call 860-249-1207

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