When visiting an art exhibition, the amateur art appreciator looking at a painting or a sculpture tries to understand what the artist is seeking to communicate. The work of art is the intermediary between the artist and the general public.
Looking at the Lorton Art Program exhibition at Georgetown Lutheran Church, the works displayed contain hints that the voices heard through the art aren’t the ones that are normally exposed to the larger world — at least, not through visual art.
This exhibition could not have happened if it wasn’t for the efforts of Mia Choumenkovitch, founder and director of the Lorton Art Program, who has been an art teacher and a mentor to prisoners for quite some time.
Choumenkovitch, an immigrant of Serbian origin, received encouragement from a friend to teach art. She was hesitant because she couldn’t see herself in a prison environment, but her friend insisted. Choumenkovitch agreed to do so for six weeks, which turned into more weeks and then into a much longer period. “I’m still there,” she said, explaining: “I saw a need.”
It turns out, however, that the demand for an art teacher came from the prisoners themselves. Her presence touched them; they would ask whether or not she was coming back. They were trying their best and had ideas they were eager to express, Choumenkovitch discovered.
The art lessons were an opportunity for growth, both for her and for the people who were incarcerated. “I grew with them and they grew with me,” she said. One of the requests from her prison students was to bring in flowers — if possible, roses.
Her interactions with them also made her aware of race issues in American society.
Choumenkovitch taught her students that the sky is the limit, even when people are living in extremely confined spaces. “They think I’m crazy,” she said. Having worked with art since the age of 10, she can state with confidence that art heals and offers hope. “It gives them a release, a feeling of being somebody,” she said.
Taurus Evans, 38, was one of Choumenkovitch’s students. A D.C. native, he started drawing at an early age, “probably around the age of 7,” he said. Evans attended the Duke Ellington School of the Arts and then enrolled at the San Francisco Art Institute. But he stopped attending college and made “bad decisions,” he said, which led to prison. After he left prison, he returned to the San Francisco Art Institute.
Evans is clearly dedicated to the creative process. “No matter what happens, you just keep painting,” he said. It took a couple of years and multiple transformations before two paintings of birds were satisfactory in his eyes. One bird is white and the other bird looks like it could blend into the night sky. “Make it, watch it, let it speak to you,” he said.
The Lorton Art Program exhibition will be on view at Georgetown Lutheran Church, 1556 Wisconsin Ave. NW, until June 7. Viewing times are: Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Wednesday evenings from 5 to 8 p.m.; and by appointment. Admission is free.