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On the Coast: Delaware Inmates Make Art Behind Bars

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As part of a small program, prisoners at one prison in coastal Delaware get once-a-week therapeutic art classes.
WAMU/Bryan Russo
As part of a small program, prisoners at one prison in coastal Delaware get once-a-week therapeutic art classes.

A 2013 study in Delaware found that 80 percent of the inmates in the state's prison system end up back in jail within three years of their release. But now a small art program in one of the prisons near the coast is trying to change that. Coastal reporter Bryan Russo talks to Chase Fehrenbech, one of the prisoners involved in the program.

Bryan Russo: Chase Fehrenbach is probably the youngest inmate in his class. But his artwork is among the most striking. Chase got hooked on heroin at a young age, and the thrills of addiction led him to commit armed robbery. He says he’s six years into a lengthy sentence. For him, this class is a way to hone his craft because he hopes to make art a full time career when he gets out.

Chase Fehrenbach: I love the idea of tragedy mixed with love and longing, destruction breeding creation, tearing something down to build something beautiful or building something beautiful over the top of the ruins of something past or destroyed.

Russo: How much was art part of your life before you came here?

Fehrenbach: Oh it was a huge part. I’ve been drawing since I was a little kid – started out drawing imaginary planes with bombs and guns, futuristic style and eventually it just kind of took on a life of its own. Started designing tattoos when I was about 13 and it kind of spun on and took a life of its own there. But it’s really flourished ever since I’ve gone to jail.

Russo: How has your art grown since being in this program?

Fehrenbach: It’s grown exponentially. I have always done art on the street but the time in here alone, away from the class, I utilize extremely well. But what this class has given me is additional mediums that I wouldn’t otherwise have access to – painting, watercolor, acrylic canvasses, things that I couldn’t necessarily afford, and or have access to period of I was on the rest of the compound. Which is – my mediums are, as you can tell – black and white pen work. But getting into color and canvasses and paintings has really broken my mold. It’s just shown me another world of possibilities that I didn’t even know that I had in me.

Russo: You said when you were a kid that you would draw, and that would be kind of nice escape. How much of art being created in prison is escapism for you? Or is it really a quest to create?

Fehrenbach: It’s both. I do it naturally just because it’s always been a coping mechanism, even before I knew what a coping mechanism was. It took me away from the world and troubles at home. And it’s only amplified that ability in here. It’s been my saving grace. It’s been an escape for me pretty much every day. Every day in here is a struggle to deal with the issues and the people and the places and having no control. And this is the one place where I can turn to and I have absolute complete control to come up with, you know, whatever my desires – having that ability and having talent and having people appreciate it on a grander scale makes it even all that more special to me.

Russo: Now of course as you forward. And – to whenever your sentence ends – and when you go back into society, I mean, do you think this will help you ramp into – maybe taking art on as a career? Do you think that could be a possibility for your future?

Fehrenbach: Absolutely. I’m already in the works right now, I had a lady contact me. I have a website, ChaseFehrenbach.com, as well as a Myspace — or Facebook account, and people contact me there sporadically for doing commissioned work for tattoos, paintings, I have stuff in the gallery in Millsborough, putting in stuff in a gallery in California as well as a lady approached me about six months ago with a children’s book idea and I’m in the work with illustrating a children’s book with her.

Russo: So it sounds like even though you’re in here – it sounds like your career is moving along. How much do you attribute to just being in this class?

Fehrenbach: A lot my career artistically has grown in here more than it ever was on the street. On the street it was a novelty, something to do to relieve stress and to kill time. I here, it’s been a consuming endeavor that’s been nothing but gratification after gratification on a scale that I didn’t ever even imagine to be on.

Music: "Sea of Love" by Tom Waits from Brawlers / "On The Mend" by Foo Fighters from In Your Honor

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