Jovan McClenton’s skills have come a long way since joining KVSP’s drawing class.

Jovan McClenton’s skills have improved greatly since joining KVSP’s drawing class.

Arts-in-Corrections brings professional artists into prisons


Photos and story by Krissi Khokhobashvili, CDCR Public Information Officer

Inmates enrolled in the arts program at Kern Valley State Prison (KVSP) are learning about much more than how to shade a face or smudge a shadow – they’re discovering that their creativity has the potential for positivity.

Charles McCraw works on a complex drawing.

Charles McCraw works on a complex drawing.

KVSP is a Level IV, maximum-security prison in Delano – not the first place one would expect to find a group of inmates hunched over pieces of paper, creating black-and-white drawings that rival any professional’s work. But on a recent Monday the group was hard at work, perfecting techniques and critiquing their work under the watchful eye of instructor David Vanderpool.

“Anything that will make me sit down and think is therapeutic,” observed inmate Charles McCraw as he shaded the edges of his detailed sketch of a dragon in flight. “That’s what this is doing. It’s multi-tasking, it’s problem solving, but it’s also just time to sit down and self-reflect. There’s nothing wrong with that at all.”

Indeed, the art room at KVSP is, for the most part, quiet, save for the scratching of pencils on paper and the occasional question or clarification. Vanderpool drifts from student to student, offering suggestions and compliments, obviously proud of what his students have learned.

Vanderpool came to KVSP through Arts-in-Corrections, a partnership of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) and the California Arts Council (CAC). CDCR provides funding for the programs, administered by CAC. Professional arts organizations teach structured, rehabilitative arts classes, from drawing and painting to music, theater and dance. Arts programs provide not only a positive way for inmates to express their creativity, but also teach skills such as patience, dedication and communication. It’s also an opportunity for artists to share their skills.

“There’s no point of actually having a talent or a skill without sharing it or developing it with somebody else,” Vanderpool said.

Jovan McClenton explains how programs like Arts-in-Corrections help inmates express themselves.

Jovan McClenton explains how programs like Arts-in-Corrections help inmates express themselves.

In addition to KVSP, Vanderpool also finds time to teach arts courses at Substance Abuse Treatment Facility (SATF) in Corcoran, along with being a full-time artist and graphic designer.

For many, becoming involved in arts classes is an opportunity to expand upon talent inmates never got the chance to develop.

“Most of these guys only drew with one pencil, which is a writing pencil – they never knew,” Vanderpool said. “I did the same thing. I went through high school drawing with just a regular writing pencil. No one ever told me there are 16 other pencils to use.”

Vanderpool’s students agree that what they thought would be a simple drawing class has taught them more than they expected. Jovan McClenton began class with a rudimentary line drawing of a woman that has developed into a lifelike portrait of one of his favorite actresses.

“I come from South Central L.A. – gangs and stuff like that,” he said. “So you never have those opportunities to really explore yourself and find other things that you might be good at.”

The men in the KVSP class work on an array of themes, from Disney characters for their grandchildren to complex portraits. And while the men in the class come from different cultural and social backgrounds, those divisions melt away when they’re engrossed in their work and learning new skills.

“For me, I thought of it as therapy,” Vanderpool added. “You’re relaxing, but you’re giving your mind something to do.”

“As an artist, I can see what they’re doing and where they can go.”

Art instructor David Vanderpool shows a new technique to Charles McCraw.

Art instructor David Vanderpool shows a new technique to Charles McCraw.