by Mary Beth Roach
Artist Treacy Ziegler, who lives in Newfield, near Ithaca, had been exhibiting her work in galleries for more than 15 years when she found herself looking for a different audience. The audience she was seeing had money and power, she said, so she wanted to find one that didn’t have either.
“I wanted to sort of change the conversation,” she said. “I wanted to find an audience that did not have or would not be described in the same way as the audience I was seeing in the galleries.”
Her search, which she began about nine years ago, led her to prisons.
She began writing letters to wardens across the United States, asking if she could stage an art show in their facility. “I didn’t want to present myself as, ‘Oh, I’m going to do something really good for your prisoners by showing them my artwork.’ And I don’t really believe that art is therapy. I don’t really want to institutionalize art as therapy,” she explains
Most of the responses Ziegler received were rejections. Her first one came when she was out of town, and she had not yet mentioned the project to her husband. Gary Weisman, a sculptor and faculty member at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia, was going through the mail one day and found a letter from a super-maximum facility in Florida addressed to his wife. Gary was more than a little stunned. He called her and asked what she had gotten herself into.
The letter and the warden’s stringent tone only motivated her more.
Ziegler received favorable responses from facilities in Ohio, Massachusetts and New York. But the travel and her work, all on a volunteer basis, were becoming expensive, so she applied to the Center for Transformative Action, affiliated with Cornell University, for fiscal sponsorship. After they accepted her, she got in touch with Gary Fine, who runs the center’s Prisoner Express Project.For nearly 10 years now,
Ziegler has been running the project’s art program, developing assignments that the prisoners can work on through the mail. For the past several years, a Prisoner Express art exhibition at Cornell has featured pieces created through the program. Ziegler also writes for a newsletter that Prisoner Express puts out twice a year. It includes some of the prisoners’ artwork.
The project’s network, she said, represents 48 states and 650 prisons.
From Social Worker To Artist
A Philadelphia native, Ziegler, in her 60s now, studied painting and printmaking at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. She graduated in 1989. Prior to that, she earned a master’s degree in social work from the University of Pennsylvania.
She had what she called an unconventional childhood and went into social work. She explained that in working in that field, she felt there was a need to organize people so they fit into society, which made her uncomfortable. Always involved in art and realizing that she enjoyed working independently, she decided to follow that path.
Her training in social work was completely opposite from her education as an artist, she said. As a social worker, what she personally thought of a client could not influence her job. In art school, however, “My feelings were the ultimate,” she explained.
Her training in both fields has also allowed her to see the potential in blurring the lines between art and what she refers to as social practice in art.
“Social practice is one of the big things in art now,” she said. “I believe artists have a responsibility, but I always think there’s a danger. In social work, you have an accountability to the client. When you mix art and social work, you have to ask who you are ultimately responsible to,” she explained.
Developing New Artistic Skills
Ziegler started with printmaking and painting. When she did monoprints, it was all landscapes with her unique perspective on spatial relationships.
“I like nature, but I really don’t like nature that’s not coming into contact with some sort of presence of a person. I would never just do a landscape without a house. There always had to be a structure, a dwelling place, a footprint that there was a presence here” she said.
Never afraid to explore new art forms, she moved into sculpture, bronze casting and paper casting over the past three years, but she’s decided she doesn’t have a preference.
“Whatever I’m doing is my favorite thing, so it changes,” she said.
She realized that her hand “wanted to go off the 2-D dimension into the 3-D. It needed to take the turn off the page, so I went into sculpture.” Her husband is a bronze caster and a sculptor, so the couple has a foundry at their Newfield residence, making her work easier.
Bronze casting allowed her to learn a new skill – welding – since her art involves taking a blowtorch to bronze and painting with ashes. Her sculptures capture animal imagery in a big way. A 6-foot, 400-pound bronze hawk is in seven pieces in her studio. She says she plans to create a 5- by 8-foot donkey.
“I like the presence of these creatures in my studio, even if they don’t go anywhere,” she says.
Recently she has found her art coming full circle, in a way. She learned about paper casting from one of her husband’s students. Compared to a 400-pound bronze bird, it’s light to work with, she says.
“One of the things I really like about the paper is that it’s bringing me back to the same medium I used with the printmaking,” she said. “You can manipulate it in a way that you can’t manipulate bronze.”
Her source of paper comes, in a large part, from the letters she receives from the prisoners affiliated with the project. Every six months, they need to write to indicate that they are still interested in participating. Over time, those letters piled up in her basement. She has created a ritual in which she reads the letters, then shreds them and uses them in her paper casting.
The passion that she and her husband share in art has passed to the next generation. She and Gary have a son, Jack, who grew up saying he hated art, notes Ziegler. Ironically, he earned his BFA in film at York University in Toronto.
“I told my husband, ‘Don’t ever tell him what BFA stands for, he’ll drop out,’” she says. “I’m happy to say he has been able to absorb what we understand about art and use it in his films.”