When Bruce Loeschen volunteered to teach art to Mower County Jail inmates, he wasn’t sure at first what he would teach them. Though he began with a few art lessons, he quickly realized inmates who came in and out of jail wouldn’t benefit from art lessons so much as art inspiration.
“It was a kind of art therapy,” Loeschen said.
That lesson has prompted more than 50 inmates to create a massive 9-foot by 13-feet mural, composed of 126 individual artistic pieces, all combining to recreate another piece of art. The mural is hung from the rafters at Oak Park Mall, but the lessons Loeschen, a retired art teacher, taught the inmates will hopefully remain.
The project came out of a general art class started last year, which Loeschen signed up to teach after the first Austin Artwork Festival. Loeschen wanted to instill confidence in inmates, but teaching specific art techniques wasn’t having as much of an effect.
“The first thing a teacher hears is, ‘Well I can’t do that,’” Loeschen said. “If you break it down into smaller pieces, you get that confidence, and that allows you to try and you see that success.”
That confidence was hard to instill at first, until Loeschen came across a little inspiration: a painting by Austin native Eric Anfinson, who overcame serious injury to create a booming art career for himself. Loeschen decided the inmates he worked with would recreate “The Golden Fish,” a piece Anfinson painted after meeting a Haitian boy who offered him a fish in Florida.
Each inmate was given a piece of the painting, which they worked on throughout June. Some inmates did more than one piece, while Loeschen talked to inmates about the themes behind “The Golden Fish.”
“We talked a lot about ‘What is it you want to do?’” Loeschen said. “You can catch a fish for a man, or you can teach a man to fish and teach them to take responsibility.”
The end result is a large mural consisting of various art works. The mural looks whole and complete from far away, but as a person gets closer, they notice the individual pieces each inmate contributed, which reinforces each inmate’s unique desires and creativity.
Loeschen was pleased to discover inmates took the classes seriously, though some didn’t always respond well to Loeschen’s projects. Yet Loeschen feels several inmates found their passions through the art they created, whether it was the mural or other recreations, such as a mini-Vetruvian man piece each inmate did.
“Anything you love to do, you can pour your soul into,” Loeschen said. “Your soul is what creates art.”
The mural will hang at Oak Park Mall over the next few days until Austin Artworks Festival volunteers hang it up during the festival next month. After that, Loeschen isn’t sure what will happen to the mural, though he said he would be willing to sell it. His classes at the jail ended earlier this week, but he said the aftereffects will likely last.
“One inmate gets out tomorrow, and the first thing he’s going to do is come take a look at this,” Loeschen said Tuesday. “That’s a real special piece that gives him that joy.”