Art behind bars

Inmate artist George Albert Venecia has spends his time at Two Rivers Correctional Institution making his world a better place to look at. Venecia has painted murals in the prison's medical ward like the one seen here.

The decor through most of Two Rivers Correctional Institution is bleak.

Long, bare corridors made of cement floors flanked by off-white walls stretch endlessly through the prison.

In the medical area, it’s different. Purple-hued mountains decorate one wall, while a mixture of greens, browns and oranges form a forest on another. In the day room, the walls are covered floor to ceiling with a busy underwater scene. In a changing area for staff, the men’s restroom is a riot of orange and black for the Oregon State Beavers, while the women’s bathroom is all about the University of Oregon Ducks.

Most of it is the handiwork of George Albert Venecia.

“It’s nice to be able to look at something besides the wall and each other,” he said.

Venecia would know — he’s been staring at prison walls for 12 and a half years since he was convicted of charges of sodomy and sex abuse. He still has another 12 and a half to go, which is probably why his favorite things to paint are nature scenes. Inside TRCI, “nature” generally means the patch of sky inmates can see when they exercise in the yard.

Many inmates at the prison outside Umatilla are gifted artists. Detailed colored pencil drawings by inmates line a visitor room, and right now the institution is auctioning off wood and metal pieces created by inmates to benefit the Agape House. But few of the men inside the prison are given the privilege of using paint and a paintbrush. Venecia said only those with a long track record of being a model inmate are allowed to work on projects like the murals he paints, which gives him incentive to keep on the right track.

“I was trying to teach the other inmates how to paint, but it’s hard for them to, shall we say, stay out of trouble, so I kept losing people,” he said.

Staff in the infirmary praise his talent, and said it’s hard to keep him for their projects as staff from other areas of the prison try to borrow him for their office or other spaces. In one office, Venecia painted a set of lace curtains on the wall for a staff member who was sad she couldn’t have real curtains for safety reasons.

It’s not just TRCI employees Venecia does projects for. He works in his cell, manipulating colored pencils with his fingers, erasers, pen caps and even toilet paper to create a paint-like effect. Sometimes he does projects for other inmates, or for family members (he was working on a portrait for his cousin Monday). He said he has been working lately on some T-shirt designs for a former TRCI inmate who wrote him and said they were having trouble finding work on the outside and wanted to start their own company.

“I told him, I’ll send you some stuff. Don’t get into trouble. Don’t come back,” Venecia said.

After a committee reviewed his request, he was even given permission to sell his art to people on the outside. He said he has family members who have been supportive in acting as intermediaries and handling things like setting up a PayPal account.

Much of Venecia’s work has a tribal influence. He is working on an illustrated book about the creation story of his tribe, the Karuk tribe from northern California.

If he was published, he wouldn’t be the first inmate at TRCI to do so. TRCI spokesperson Sherry Iles said there have been novels published and artwork sold from behind bars before.

Venecia said he didn’t start painting until he landed in prison, something Iles said is common.

“So many times I say ‘This is amazing!’ and they say, ‘Yeah, I didn’t start until I came in here,’” she said, pointing to a wall of intricate colored pencil drawings in an area for visitors. “For me, if I take photos of what they’ve done, I give it to them for their portfolio for when they get out, for work opportunities.”

Venecia is one of TRCI’s residents who wants to make a career out of art someday. While his specialty is paint, others work with wood or metal or fabric.

In TRCI’s administration building right now, a collection of artwork is up for silent auction among staff to benefit the Agape House’s food bank. The art is mostly created by inmates in the facilities plant, who fabricate everything from metal lockers to book shelves and in their spare time are allowed to use scraps for artwork.

In the administration building, a small motorcycle made of plumbing parts sits on a decorative wooden dresser. Nearby, scraps of metal weave themselves into an American flag picture frame while delicately carved walking sticks ­— unrecognizable as former mop handles — sit on the floor. There are even some colorful blankets made by members of TRCI’s crocheting class.

“It’s really relaxing for them, and they do some amazing stuff,” Iles said.

Venecia said he enjoys the process of spending months to create murals on walls, and the “calming effect” the art can have on those around him.

“If they wanted to paint over it, they could,” he said. “I love to paint so as long as I could paint it again. I couldn’t be upset.”

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Contact Jade McDowell at jmcdowell@eastoregonian.com or 541-564-4536.

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