GREENPORT–Chatham artist and educator Melissa Sarris has long been known for her quilts. She is also known for initiating the sorts of community arts projects that bring a patchwork of people together. And for several years she has volunteered at the Columbia County Jail bringing art workshops to people incarcerated there.
The results of a nine-month project she calls Sewn Together were unveiled earlier this month–two framed quilts created by inmates of the Columbia County jail. A third full-sized quilt that was also part of the project was exhibited at the county fair in September and then donated to Columbia Opportunities, a community action program based in Hudson with a mission to solve poverty related problems.
The formal presentation was held Thursday, November 15 in the lobby of the jail in Greenport, where the quilts will be installed for permanent display. In attendance to celebrate with Ms. Sarris were county Sheriff David Bartlett, Jail Administrator Brian Gardner, ReEntry Columbia Executive Director Laurie Scott and ReEntry Case Manager Caroline Polykarpus. ReEntry’s mission is to help people when they are released from jail. The organization has also underwritten Ms. Sarris’ various art projects at the jail, including this one.
Ms. Sarris, who has a day job as an art instructor at Siena College, was asked by Ms. Scott if she could suggest some projects in the jail. “You can’t just go in there and say I want to teach a painting class. You have to go through a lot of preparation,” said Ms. Sarris.
“After working as a volunteer for a couple of years, I had a good relationship with now-retired jail Administrator Captain Thomas Lanphear, and he said yes to this sewing project, which is my forte–it’s a form I know really well. I applied for a Community Engagement Grant through the Greene County Council on the Arts, which also considers grants for Columbia County,” she said.
But there were hurdles to clear, unique even by jailhouse standards, like how you get pins, needles and scissors in for the inmates to use. Everything had to be inventoried as it was brought in, and again as it left. The scissors had to be the rounded craft style.
“I would not call this art therapy,” said Ms. Sarris. “There was a sense of community engagement. I saw men who came every single week–who saw this is an opportunity to do something productive and creative with their time here, and to help someone less fortunate,” she said.
They were learning to sew which is a useful skill,” Ms. Sarris said, “and there was this wonderful sense of collaboration. A person would leave and another person would come in and pick up where they left off.”
Sheriff Bartlett was proud of the support of the project from the Sheriff’s Office and of the work that is done on behalf of the inmates in general. “We are the only county corrections facility that does stuff like this,” he said.
“People are hungry for some kind of respite,” Jail Administrator Gardner added. “There are people who are so creative here.”
The frames were paid for by funds from the jail’s commissar; it was money that was spent by inmates being spent on something for them.
“Something carried on after we left– a sense of community. We have gotten a lot of positive comments since the quilts have been installed,” said Ms. Sarris.