Giving inmates a pen — and a voice

The Pen Project is distributed to 50 facilities in nine different states and features artwork and writing by current and former inmates

Taylor Reisdorf

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March 25, 2020

Artist Anthony Scholfield and The Pen Project director Keri White pose with three of the five printed issues of the art magazine.

Art has been Anthony Scholfield’s passion since childhood, Scholfield said.

“Some of my earliest memories are of drawing birds out of my grandfather’s birding books,” Scholfield said. “I’ve always been art- and design-oriented. For me, I just do it because it’s fun. I enjoy it for myself, the idea of creating — making something for people to enjoy.”

Scholfield was a graphic design student at UW-Stout. However, a journey down a path riddled with drugs and burglary led to two arrests, he said, and he never ended up getting his degree.

After his second arrest, Scholfield was sent to the Jackson Correctional Institution in Black River Falls for about three years. Scholfield said The Pen Project — a locally-produced non-profit art magazine — is what gave him purpose during his incarceration.  

“Having the opportunity to be involved in something greater, especially when you’re in a place that doesn’t seem to have much going on sometimes, it brings a bit of hope, a bit of glimmer, like you’re pushing forward toward something and not wasting your time,” Scholfield said.

Issues of The Pen Project comprise photocopies of hand-crafted artwork and hand-written poetry and prose created by current or former inmates. Works from artists featured in the magazine are currently on display at The Heyde Center for the Arts in Chippewa Falls, Keri White, director of The Pen Project, said, and will remain there until March 28.

“The Pen Project really breaks down barriers and stereotypes that people have when they think of inmates or people who are incarcerated,” White said. “It shows that inmates are incredibly gifted people — people incredibly capable of change and capable of impacting society for the better.”

White said The Pen Project started about four years ago at Jackson Correctional Institution, under the ministry of Eau Claire-based Christian band 513 Free. The band, White said, goes into prisons and other “lonely places” to provide worship and musical performances.

White and her husband, Chad, played in 513 Free. White said the idea for The Pen Project was born when inmates started showing interest in the music — asking for lyrics and chord charts and bringing in their own work.

About a year ago, as 513 Free continued to grow, it became obvious that The Pen Project needed to become its own entity, White said. White and Chad decided to take leadership and make The Pen Project its own nonprofit, she said. While the publication is faith- and gospel-based, White said no one is excluded from interacting with it.

In its early stages, in-person meetings were held at Jackson Correctional Institution about every four months, White said. Scholfield was one of those who attended these meetings.

Scholfield said he’s been told his style — which he describes as having a “geometric, digital feel with organic subject matter” —  is unique and recognizable. His primary mediums are colored pencils, pastels and watercolors on paper or canvas, he said.

While at Jackson Correctional Institution, Scholfield said he had adequate access to art materials. If inmates can afford hobby materials, through personal funding or by holding jobs, they are able to order them, he said.

Since his release about a year and a half ago, Scholfield has adopted a leadership role for The Pen Project. He helps with the financial and productional sides of things, he said, and he works hard to keep the publication going and growing because of the impact it has had on him.

Due to a variety of rules, regulations and fraternization policies in place at Jackson Correctional Institution, in-person meetings no longer take place. This discontinuation has actually helped The Pen Project expand, White said. Rather than being confined to Jackson Correctional Institution, White said she has been able to make connections and maintain relationships with chaplins and activity organizers at a variety of facilities.

The first copies of The Pen Project were distributed to three facilities, White said, and the pilot issue was 40 pages long. The Pen Project is now distributed to 50 facilities — prisons, county jails, treatment centers and a transitional house — in nine different states, White said. These states include Wisconsin, Missouri, Nebraska, New York, Pennsylvania and South Dakota, White said. The most recent issue was 75 pages long and some issues have been up to 100 pages long.

While the nonprofit focuses on getting copies in the hands of inmates and other at-risk individuals, Scholfield said The Pen Project is readily available to the general public.

Artwork can be viewed digitally on the organization’s website, Instagram and Facebook pages, Scholfield said, and copies are often left at churches and coffee shops for people to pick up and peruse. Anyone who wants to subscribe to get physical copies can do so on the organization’s website.

Scholfield’s work in particular is currently on display and for sale at The Goat Coffee House, Artisan Forge and the Heyde Center. Any profit he gets from his art goes towards funding The Pen Project, Scholfield said.  

Each issue of The Pen Project has submission forms for inmates to tear out and mail with their artwork, White said. White also supplies facility employees with PDFs of the submission forms so they can distribute as many as they want to inmates, she said.

White said the publication has already received enough content to fill another issue.

“The real hurdle, when we dream about the future, is funding and fundraising,” White said. “We’re trying to be creative in how we’re asking people to support what we do.”

One opportunity for fundraising will take place on March 14 at the The Heyde Center, White said. The event will include poetry readings by Bruce Taylor, a former English professor at UW-Eau Claire, and Patti See, a current women’s, gender and sexuality studies professor at UW-Eau Claire. Waffles and coffee from Shift Cyclery and Coffee Bar and ice cream from Ramone’s will also be available to attendees.

“It will be a delicious evening,” White said.

New issues of The Pen Project are released about every six months, but White said she hopes it can become a quarterly publication. If all goes as planned, the next issue will be released in the spring, White said.

“I hope (The Pen Project) keeps encouraging artists to create and be inspired,” White said. “I want it to let them know that they have a talent that is seen. Our world would be very dull without art.”

Reisdorf can be reached at [email protected].