Prison Artist C-Note Looking for Collaborations
10/27/2020, Chicago // KISSPR //
Despite bans on rehabilitative services throughout American prisons due to coronavirus, one imprisoned artist seeks to collaborate with the public.
For many of those incarcerated, a prison is a place that walls them off from the rest of the world, but for C-Note, the American who has become the world’s most prolific prisoner artist, the prison has not dimmed his passion. Known as the King of Prison Hip Hop, C-Note is a poet, playwright, performing artist, and award-winning visual artist. He has overcome the challenges that prisoners experience through his prison art. He has made a name for himself not just inside corrections, but all around the world. His work has been exhibited, performed, recited and even sold from Alcatraz, all the way to Berlin. His work has even been acknowledged by search engines, with Google search results showing him as one of the world’s most prolific prisoner artists.
C-Note says that making a name for oneself as an artist is more difficult when one is a prisoner, adding that every prisoner artist has the overwhelming task of getting their work seen beyond prison walls. However, due to the advent of arts in corrections, C-Note has observed that prisoners are now able to make it in the arts despite their circumstances. “Prisoners are now being taught by career professionals in the arts. They are being given certificates, awards, and other laudatory chronos from respected cultural organizations including universities,” said C-Note, also revealing that his prison art has given him the opportunity to become a recipient of such recognitions.
C-Note is of the opinion that news about what is happening at the correctional centers, where prisoners are being encouraged to express themselves through art, is beneficial to people from both sides of the prison wall. For those who are inside, C-Note says they get the opportunity to be known outside the facility; while those on the outside get the chance to see the kind of talents that exist in prison.
“Sharing information about the talents in here and the role that career professionals in the arts are playing in shaping them, could be made useful to parties on both sides of the prison wall,” says C-Note, adding that journalists and academics, as well as people working in the social justice space can play a great role in making this a reality.
C-Note, who started doing poetry in his mid-teens for R&B, rap, and country and western songs, says that his family and friends found the lyrics quite catchy and they would often find themselves singing them out. During his incarceration C-Note says he has developed the skill for micro poems.
Becoming a painter
It was in the 1980s, while C-Note was in the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department’s Men’s County Jail’s High-Power Unit, a place that is known for housing some of the nation’s worst criminal minds, that the seed for becoming a painter was planted. To get a glimpse of the environment where this talent was nurtured and to also appreciate why it was impactful, C-Note shares some of the names of the prisoners who were in the same housing unit tier as him: Eddie Nash (1929-2014), who was in custody for, and acquitted of being The Mastermind in the bludgeoning and death of five people; Brothers Neil Woodman (1950- ), and Stewart Woodman (1944 - 2014); Joe Hunt (1959 - ), founder of the Billionaire Boys Club (BBC); Fred “Fat Fred” Knight (1967); and John “Youngster” Stinson (1954 - ), who was in custody to be resentenced; all of them were in for big crimes.
Just like Tupac Shakur who was serving his prison sentence in New York when he read Machiavelli’s “The Prince” and drew great inspiration from the classic; C-Note was at the same age between 22 and 23, when he was exposed to art or what he calls “material and men.” C-Note says that the men whom he was sharing prison played a huge role in the person he became and the talents he developed. He mentions Stinson and an EME who taught him sign language and Aztec culture. He also mentions a number of books that he read, among which was Musashi’s “A Book of Five Rings,” which was a great influence on him becoming a painter. He quotes the cover of the book which states, “The classic texts of principles, crafts, skill, and Samurai strategy that change the American way of doing business!” C-Note says that the cover of the book was a total bait and switch because the book had nothing to do with corporate competition, but was loaded with lethal martial arts weapons. Being a book on the science of weaponry, his interest was aroused. He had always wanted to gain skills in martial arts but had not trained formally. The book stressed that one needed to spend time training by picking up the brush. The insights on the book which included the constant exercise of doing calligraphy in the sand became very valuable to C-Note’s art.
From there, C-Note never looked back. He nurtured his talent, and on several occasions, he was given the opportunity to participate in prison art exhibitions. His works have also been donated to grassroots organizations for fundraising purposes. Leslie Lakes, the Director of Prison Arts Touching Hearts (P.A.T.H.), had scheduled a fall prisoner art exhibition for 2020, BIRDS, BEES, BUTTERFLIES, and FLOWERS. The exhibition was going to be a special fundraiser for the St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, but due to Covid-19 it was cancelled. “Per majority vote decision on the part of the inmate artists, I am starting to list the individual pieces for sale on Ebay,” says Lakes. “Ebay has a special feature where one can select a charitable non profit foundation; so the sale of the art will go directly to the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital as was originally planned.” C-Note, who is a contributing artist, could not be more prouder to see one of his artworks created 10-years prior to the event, is supporting such a worthy cause.
In 2015, his playwriting and performance in collaboration with other prisoner artists, in the play Redemption in Our State of Blues, inspired an incredible amount of public and private funding to fund “BREAK IT TO MAKE IT (BITMI): Busting Barriers for the Incarcerated Project, Los Angeles, California.” A first in the nation prison reentry project. It provides two years of free housing from the Los Angeles Mission. Two years of free education from the Los Angeles City College, and participation in the jails to jobs program of paid theatrical work with the theatrical troupe The Strindberg Laboratory.
In 2016, he read an exposé in the California Prison Focus on the 175-women serving a sentence of life without the possibility of parole. They were being housed at the Central California Women’s Facility. Their first hand accounts inspired him to create two paintoems and a play. A paintoem is a poem inspired by original visual work, or a visual work inspired by a poem. These works are combined to create a single work of digital art. In order to qualify as a paintoem, the work must be created under the Creative Commons (CC). CC is a copyright that gives the public free use access to the work. Paintoems were created in 2016 by C-Note for prisoner art curators and protesters. Both look to text in addition to visual works.
In 2016 he read in the October 2016 edition of the San Quentin News, “During an 18-month period in 2014-15, the suicide rate at the California Institution for Women (C.I.W.), was eight times the national average for women prisoners and five times the rate for the entire California prison system.” This inspired him to create the paintoem Strange Fruit.
In 2017 while listening to Los Angeles Public Radio Station KCRW, and its local news program Press Play, hosted by Madeleine Brand, the topic was reparations for forced sterilizations in California. From his programming notes, forced sterilizations were legal in California from 1909-1979. The majority of these sterilizations took place between 1919-1953, and represented 20,000 sterilizations. These sterilizations disproportionately occurred on people with Spanish surnames. C-Note was shocked to hear forcible sterilizations occurred against 150-women prisoners from 2006-201O. The radio broadcast was about providing reparations to victims of this practice. However, reparations for the women prisoners were not a part of the conversation. This inspired him to create the paintoem Today We are Sisters.
In 2017, while watching televised images of Hurricane Harvey’s impact on the elderly, who had found themselves in waist high water inside their assisted living homes, C-Note knew that prisoners were suffering a similar fate. However, because prisoners and prisons are located in what are called high security areas, they are deemed restricted space, and no one was reporting these stories. Frustrated, he created a work of ink on paper, and called it During the Flood. It depicts the dire and desperate impact when prisoners find themselves with water well above their waist, and trapped inside a prison cell. In 2019, organizations and individuals disseminated this work to plea for the evacuation of prisons in the path of Hurricane Dorian, a category 5 hurricane. To date, During the Flood is one of his most disseminated works.
In December of 2017, while watching the syndicated televised show Democracy Now, hosted by Amy Goodman, C-Note saw the story of Recy Taylor. In 1944 while leaving church, Recy, who is African-American, was kidnapped and brutally raped by six White men. Discovered by her father, she was told by Jim Crow era White’s to keep quiet, but she refused. While this was seen as a display of heroism on Recy’s part, her sister saw the impact the rape had on Recy’s life from a different point of view, a tragic point of view. The point of view of the sister of Recy Taylor was the closing story to his 2018 epic performance poem, Can’t Black Lives Matter Too??? It is a work that tries to be a bridge of understanding for those advocating All Lives Matter, as an inappropriate response to Black Lives Matter. It is a piece that takes us on an epic journey of all manner of murder or discriminatory practices heaped upon all class of Americans, because of their racial, ethnic, or religious affiliation. It includes the mass lynching of Italians in Louisiana; the mass lynchings of Mexicans in California; the mass rape of a Aztecan, Mayan, and African women; and so on, and so on. But it ends in the mimic voice of a woman. The voice of Recy Taylor’s sister. She retells the lasting impact, she as an observer, had seen the rape do to her sister. The work was created in collaboration with the California State University of San Bernardino, within their inaugural Performance Poetry course. The teary-eyed piece was performed as his final assignment.
In 2019, C-Note collaborated with third year fashion undergrad Makenzie Stiles. Stiles was working on her final dissertation, a fashion line. Her fashion line Mercy was the first fashion line in the 141-year history of the Columbus College of Art and Design to be created using images from prison art. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the 2020 CCAD Fashion Show was cancelled. Had it not been cancelled, it would have represented the first time in the global history of the fashion show catwalk, that models would have walked the runway wearing designs from prison art.
C-Note’s works in poetry, painting, and the performing arts have taken him places. 2020 had a lot in store for him but when the pandemic struck, most of the shows where his works were to be exhibited were cancelled. He is reaching out to journalists and academics, as well as people working in the social justice space of mass incarceration. “I am available for collaborations. In poetry, playwriting, painting, creative writing, prison journalism, among others” said C-Note.
For more information about C-Note visit: https://www.c-note.org
Donald “C-Note” Hooker is a prison artist, a poet, playwright, performing artist, award-winning visual artist, and is known as the King of Prison Hip Hop. He is incarcerated at the California State Prison in Los Angeles County.
Release ID: 14828