NewsPositively Montana


"Compelled to Create" an art piece created by inmates at Montana Women's Prison and YAM

"I think it's important to give a platform for people who may not usually have a place to displace their work."
"Compelled to Create" artwork
Posted at 11:25 AM, Jun 27, 2024

BILLINGS — If you've been to the Billings Public Library recently, you might be wondering who's behind the art on their exhibit wall.

"Compelled to Create" artwork

Well actually, it's talented inmates at the Montana Women's Prison.

"Just yesterday, there were a group of kids walking by, and they were asking about it, and wondering what it is. So, it's definitely eye catching, and people are wondering what is going on," said Technical Services Librarian and Cataloger Courtney Lujan.

Courtney Lujan, Billings Public Library

Art is in the eye of the beholder, and while this small quilt may not initially catch everyone's attention, it's certainly a conversation starter when you learn who made it.

"I think it's important to give a platform for people who may not usually have a place to display their artwork," Lujan said.

The idea to show off inmate's art work was one of Lujan and another Billings librarian, Joe Lanning.

"We really want to give everybody a voice and a way to show off their artistic talent," said Lanning.

Joe Lanning, Billings Public Library

Even though this is only the second showing at the public library, the Yellowstone Art Museum (YAM) and the Montana Women's Prison have worked together making art for quite some time.

In 2013, a high schooler had the idea to bring art into the Women's Prison, and since then the YAM has been bringing local artists to teach classes to inmates every other month.

The program is supported through different funding like the Tippet Rise Fund and the Puffin Foundation West.

"Compelled to Create," is currently on display. It's a wet felt needle process allowing one to essentially "draw" with felt.

"It is a super positive program for them. In fact, all their comments always wish, 'Please come every week,' 'Please be here more often,'" said Marilu Metherell, the organizer behind the program.

And the very positive program leaves an impact on each of the inmates who participate. I had the opportunity to sit down with four of the artists who contributed to the piece: Natasha, Devin, Felicia, and Michele.

"I enjoyed learning a new form of art. I'm a painter, usually a painter, tattoo artist. I'm always open to new ideas, and it was a lot of fun. I really enjoyed it very much, expressing myself and my spirituality through the artwork," said Natasha.

Natasha created three individual pieces for the quilt, including a protection symbol for her family and a face.

"Compelled to Create" artwork

"I really like it when the YAM comes to teach us new things. It gives us a sense of community, even though we're still incarcerated. And I just like the different art options they have. It makes me want to have clear conduct so I can attend these classes, so it really encourages me," said Michele.

Michele designed a blue eyeball after her own eye.

Artist Felicia liked incorporating her own spirituality into her pieces, "It was a wonderful experience being able to express a part of our spirit and our soul and our dreams through sight and medians... It's also like really healthy, like healing, therapeutic wise," she said.

Felicia created multiple pieces one of which being a sun with a slipper. She said the shoe represented her own personal soul. She also designed a piece featuring a serpent and an apple, which represents her own personal experience with temptation.

"I love the class. I enjoy every part of it. I'm always open to new ideas, and I have kids, so that way I'm able to teach them whatever I learn," Devin said.

In honor of her kids' love for basketball, Devin created a piece featuring one.

"Compelled to Create" artwork

So even though the piece may look like a small quilt from afar, it truly represents the lives of many inmates at the Montana Women's Prison.

"Compelled to Create" is expected to run until the next exhibit arrives.

Until then, it's a colorful, fuzzy, and memorable piece worth visiting.

"I think that working with the Montana Women's Prison is my favorite part of this job, period," said Metherell.

"Compelled to Create" artwork