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Windham's Rembrandt (Full Color): The True Story of the First Prison Art Teacher in Texas Paperback – August 10, 2012
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I wasn't disappointed. Windham's Rembrandt was written by Jonathan Humphries, Jims son, and the result is excellent. The novel's descriptive passages transport the reader into the scene. The vignettes of Jim's relationships with a multitude of inmates beg the question, "How did he do it?"
For me, Windham's Rembrandt awakened memories of my time n the Tennessee prison system. Jim Humphries did not embellish or understate. He told it like it was.
Anyone who wants to experience the prison environment from the perspective of one who worked in the system should read Windham's Rembrandt.
(reprinted from Synchronized Chaos International Magazine, [...])
My very first teaching job long ago was in a federal prison in Lompoc, California. Friends of Richard Nixon, like Haldeman and Ehrlichman, resided in the minimum security buildings, outside the walls. But my classes were in the big house, reached only after a gauntlet of slamming security doors, armed guards, barbed wire, and stultifying lime-green corridors.
Windham's Rembrandt, then, the story of an art teacher's experiences in the Texas prison system, was like a gigantic flashback for me.
The stories in this book reflect the experiences of James L. Humphries, written well by his son, Jonathan R. Humphries.
James, the dad, is an ex-Marine, and a credentialed teacher in math and art. These stories begin with the idea to create the first art program in the TDC (Texas Department of Corrections). The Windham school district runs all the "behind bars" education programs for Texas, and when James accepted their teaching offer, he began a 13 year, off-and-on intensive relationship with the residents of East Texas prisons, both the regular inmates, and the criminally insane, part of a special unit called The Walls.
What makes James Humphries, and thus these stories, special is that he truly cares about people. The poor choices his students had made to get themselves incarcerated were anguishing for him to hear. In fact, the stress of watching so many of his students self-destruct is what caused him to retire.
For example, Reginald, age 20, had gone into a panic attack when sentenced to 15 years in prison. "When he began attending my art therapy sessions, his attitude changed for the better. He smiled all the time" (p. 122). Still, Reginald drew the same thing every day, until one day he changed it. When Humphries asked why, he smiled, "Docs say I'm all better now"(p. 122). Shortly afterward, Reginald hanged himself with his belt.
Not content just to tell stories though, Humphries uses these shocking experiences to theorize about the meaning of art in inmates' lives. "I noticed this sudden change in the symbols drawn by other patients, before they too were found dead from suicide..." (p. 123). Sadly, his insights were ignored by the psychiatric staff: " `Quite interesting,' they said, and left it at that."(p. 123)
The metaphor that runs throughout this book is "the beast" within all of us. This is the term Humphries uses to describe the inmate who commits suicide after telling him all is well. It describes Kenneth, the inmate who kills any other inmate who crosses him. When one tried to stab him, Kenneth relates, "So I take his little knife out of my hand, wrestle him to the ground, and saw his head off."
Yet Kenneth likes Humphries. This mystified one of the guards: "You should know he's talked more with you than... with anyone, ever!...It wouldn't be wise to get too friendly" (p. 133). Humphries, however, treats people as they treat him, regardless of their past: "I know the men in prison had all done some sort of wrong, but there is more to a man's nature than his actions" (pp.132-3).
The oppressive prison climate was not easy on Humphries, and ultimately he left. But he survived 13 years because of his own artistic talent, and his ability to communicate that to the inmates, and because he judged them as they were in his class, not for the crimes they had committed before. And, like Kenneth, no matter what beasts lurked within, they liked him for it.
This is a well-written story of a talented, dedicated, and insightful teacher in difficult circumstances. Windham's Rembrandt is certainly worth reading.
Bruce Roberts, 2013
Bruce Roberts, who may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, is an accomplished sculptor and schoolteacher from Hayward, California.
I was quite thrilled to have the opportunity to review this book as I have always had an interest in anything to do with the penal system. The life of the inmate, the crimes, the victims and their families, the prisons, and the people that defended them.
Here is an blurb about Windham's Rembrandt from the pages of Amazon;
When Jim Humphries was called on to teach art behind Texas prison walls in 1972, he was just another struggling artist. He never thought of the impact his art class would have on the the inmates or the mentally disturbed patients housed by the Texas Department of Corrections. Maybe it was because Jim was the first art teacher in Texas to teach the federally incarcerated, a role that soon had him pioneering the first art therapy program behind bars. Or maybe it was the right time in America to try another, more rehabilitative approach to the treatment of convicted felons. The reasons may be numerous, as are the stories he wrote, based on the actual life events that involved Jim, his colleagues, and his students. This book tells their stories, and reveals the effect a little artistic expression had on the lives of the many inmates fortunate enough to have learned from Jim.
I have to admit that I took a glimpse at the website before actually opening the book. The Windham's Rembrandt website is well worth looking at. Here you will learn about the book, the author, a son's promise, an excerpt, and the artwork. Every picture tells a story and the artwork done by the prisoners is fascinating. Kudos to James Humphries for teaching his talent to those in the penal system and also to those on the outside world. And kudos to Jonathan Humphries for remembering a promise.
Now onto the review of Windham's Rembrandt. The book is an easy read and is divided into sections that highlight each of the prisoners story and how they incorporated the teachings of art instructor and teacher James Humphries into their lives. The art instruction taught by James Humphries improved their rehabilitation outcome immensely. Prior to the art instruction being taught in the federal prison of Texas, there was no way to rate the amount of education the prisoners had, therefore, rehabilitation efforts seemed pointless.
James Humphries, scholar, teacher, and humanitarian, worked with Texas prisoners for 12 years, helping them to find comfort and peace and a means to express themselves through their art work.
I wish to thank Synchronized Chaos Magazine for the opportunity of reviewing Windham's Rembrandt, James Humphries and Jonathan Humphries, for putting the memoir on paper, and, of course, to Jonathan Humphries for keeping a promise. I highly recommend that you take the time and read Windham's Rembrandt.