Virginia Tech®home

A Journey to Self Expression

Artwork by Women in Prison. A Journey to Self Expression. A Collection of paintings and reflections from the Virginia Correctional Center for Women

At the Virginia Correctional Center for Women, art classes have restored a sense of humanity and hope. In an otherwise harsh environment, the atmosphere of the art studio is characterized by person-centered engagement, positive support and awareness of the deeper emotional and psychological benefits of creativity. Through professional art instruction, the hope is to give these women a way to experience well-being through creative expression and to better prepare them for life beyond incarceration. 

[Cindy Paulin, Art for the Journey]: When we are there in prison we are teaching uh or actually we have qualified very wonderful artists in their own right, professional artists, and we are teaching our art class as any of us would want to experience, and they're learning something. They're focusing, and they're learning, and they're building a skill. There are no other programs for women that are incarcerated, and most of these women have been victims themselves of physical or sexual abuse. So when we're there we are bringing them something we would experience, that we want to experience, that we gain from, so they're building skills and coping but what they will say is when when when I'm in art class I feel human again and I think that exchange happens for both the the instructor and the incarcerated individual. They feel human again and it's just so simple, through art.

lotus flower with a flame. in the background a long haired person.
Spiritual Awakening - Lexie

I want the viewers to know that even though we, incarcerated women, are subjected to harsh physical and proverbial shame, our inner spirit and inner light cannot be put out.

My source of life, love, and peace lives hidden and safe within me. For me, the pink lotus bloom symbolizes self purity, fruitful inner growth, and elevation of the spirit. Even though I am housed in hostile, murky waters, my soul will blossom, emerge cleansed, spiritually awakened, and with hope of liberation from attachment.

I choose to come out of the oppression and darkness radiating my inner light and love. My heart is on fire, burning with love for my God, and reflecting His love for me out into the world. Even though the conditions around me are punitive, chaotic, and stressful, in the center is my soul, unreachable, untouched, unmolested and beautiful.

“Each artist in this class is immeasurably grateful for this Art for the Journey program. For 2 hours we are uplifted and transported into the exquisite experience of fine art and expression. All of us are moved with heartfelt appreciation for our beautiful and tremendous volunteers. Thank you!”

a broken pottery vase with pieces of pottery on the table. a hand holding a piece near the vase
Purposely broken - Vivian

Being in prison has given me a great opportunity to reflect on my life and make big changes in my life.

In order for me to succeed in life I need to make changes for the better, I had to realize I need help from a power greater than me to help me accomplish the things I need to change in my life.

When you look at this painting I would like for you to see the broken vase represents me relying on my higher power to purposely break me to remove all the insignificant broken pieces of my life such as drugs, unhealthy relationships, abuse, stress, negative thinking, my criminal conduct and other things. He is replacing them with more fruits of the spirit so that I may have a more positive and productive life. Ey removing those things out of my life, the holes you see can now represent my higher power's light shining brightly through rne to others.

The broken pieces on the table represent the things that are no longer in my life that could only be removed by my higher power's touch and that's what the hand represents-- my higher power putting me back together again, only this time I will be able to stand the test of time.

While being in prison I received the gift of freedom.

“When I'm painting and I make a mistake, I can't wait until it dries. I need to fix it while it's still wet, while it's early. I can apply that to my life. If I fall short, I need to change what needs to be changed while it's still fresh.”

under water, a diver rides an astronaut. above the water a diver upside down, a ship in the distant background
Challenges - Teresa

The way we view the world, what our times bring forth, and the way we look on nature. Overcoming obstacles great and small. There is a great big world out there, even though at the present, prison makes my world seem so small. I look at this painting and my thoughts journey through time to all the wonders and mysteries that have been discovered and those that are still hidden. Things we can't see but we now know to be there. Shapes that haunt thought's wildernesses. Overcoming the obstacles in my life took me on a journey much like this painting, neither here nor there, so much on the horizon and in between. My opioid addiction that brought me to prison felt like struggling with the underwater creature, then rising above to the stars and now balancing my life as the ship on the ocean.

orange colored phoenix flying toward the sun
Risen from the storm - Jessee

I chose to paint the Phoenix rising as a representation of my life. Prior to my incarceration, my life was in complete turmoil. Everything was spiraling out of control due to my drug addiction, alcohol abuse, mental anguish and overall lifestyle. The depths of despair everyday living brought about felt like a never ending raging storm. However, after becoming incarcerated and facing my demons, I no longer feel like a flaming ember burnt out and blown away by the storm. I now feel ernpowered like the Phoenix rising above the storm and reaching for my glory.

a broken wall with four people climbing it, a building with an orange roof in the background
Walls of broken wars - Renae

As we all see, my picture its of war, a battlefield. It shows death and destruction. Living in prison is like war. It's filled with death, wars among ourselves and others. It is surrounded by confusion and deceit. It's like bullets fly all around your head. Everything you do, everywhere you go, is a battle inside the walls of prison. But there can be hope. In the walls of prison are wars. The walls can fall. They can be overcome. "Faith" looking up to the big sky that's where my hope lies. 

half a face with a teary eye, bars, a cross, gravestone with "mo", a tattooed hand with a butterfly on the pinky, a spider web wrapped from fingers, with syringe, spoon, and handcuffs caught in the web
Consequences - Rhonda

The hand represents freedom with the butterfly and the blue skies. The strings on my fingers go down to make a spider web of the things that brought me to prison and for me to remember the web I wove. The eye is mine and the heart and tear is for the people I lost while here in prison. My father, brother, best friend and boyfriend. The eye and hand are mine and this is a self portrait of me in prison.

a knife piercing a heart with angel wings, a bleeding hand with pills
The love and the pain gave me freedom - Tabatha

I once was in a very dark place, and my addiction to drugs kept me locked in that place. Until one day that blade finally punctured my skin. 'They always say, the first cut is the deepest.' And that's exactly how it was for me. While puncturing my skin that same blade also pierced my heart. Because while being incarcerated I have not been there for my two Angels, whom are my son and my daughter. Also during this time I have lost my grandmother who raised me, so that is the cross in my heart. I've been through much darkness. Now it's time to wash all the bad away and keep moving toward the light. That way I can finally spread my wings and be free again for the ones I love and my myself. 

depiction of desolate area on the left, then a creek, with a full color image of a bird in a tree and green grass
I Transform - Cynthia

This painting is a reflection of my life's journey and the paths that I chose that led me to where I am today. The tree that is battered, broken, leafless and withered represents my body, spirit, mind and soul. I lost myself among the darkness and clouds. The tree's roots became uprooted, dry and thirsty, searching for water because I spiritually became unanchored in life. I was taken away from everything I loved in life, including my three children in order to save my life. What started out as the darkest days of my life turned out to be the best opportunity to have a second chance at life. Now as you see the brighter side, the tree standing firmly rooted, upright, proudly with outstretched leafy limbs as if welcoming all others around to come live beside it. The flowing water spiritually and inviting beautiful flowers and butterflies. I myself now have gained my peace and inner strength. I transform.