I met Timothy Lee Simpkins in 2015, awaiting my own sentencing in county. At the time, we were both were going through an intense period of uncertainty about the future. We connected over the serious amount of time we were both going to be doing, and we ended up serving our time in the same institution, Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution. I’ve remained loosely connected to Lee over the years and have witnessed a transformation in him that is profound. Recently, I asked Lee to tell me about his experience.
Lee started his journey with visual art in 2015 when he realized his dream of becoming a musician was going to be put on hold for about ten years. Prior to his incarceration, Lee wrote, recorded and performed music. Spoken word and rap were how he expressed himself. “The first time I performed I was 15 in Berkeley California. I performed at a Cal State open-mic rap concert. I was so nervous getting up there on that stage, but after that first time, I was cool. I found out that the performance space was my natural habitat,” Lee said. He performed a few more times in Portland and Battleground Washington before being incarcerated.
There are many reasons why someone creates art – whether it be therapy, or stress relief, or just pure passion. When someone has that passion and the talent to match, it is a gift to all of us who see those creations. This is undisputed for an eclectic artist, David “Ringo” Wonnacott of Columbia River Correctional Institution. His portraits and murals can be found throughout the facility with everything from movie characters to scenes of nature, and even portraits of employee’s own furry friends. It all began for Wonnacott when he was a tattoo artist.
“I never spent much time as a kid doodling or coloring, it wasn’t until later that it interested me. I didn’t learn how to paint or draw or have any instruction, but I just knew I wanted to be a tattoo artist,” says Wonnacott. He was originally drawn to tattooing because of its representation of being taboo and grimy. Prior to tattooing becoming mainstream, it was stereotypically just bikers, criminals, the punk rock scene, and bad girls who would wear them. “The first tattoo I ever did was a rose, free handed, it just came naturally, and the money was good. I just knew it was for me,” he stated.
David Whiting Finds Relief From Stress in His Artwork
A uniting factor among incarcerated artists is the therapeutic benefit that art delivers to each practitioner. Each person connects to their art in a unique way, but the benefits are similar and equally inspiring. For David Whiting, a visual artist living at Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution, art has become more than just a hobby – it’s a way of life for him.
Whiting began his journey with art more than 20 years ago while sitting in county jail in Eugene. He began by copying cartoons out of newspapers. Navigating the constant stress and pressures of time spent in county, “sketching and tracing became an escape for me, and eventually a meditation,” he says. Once he got to prison, Whiting began experimenting with nature sketches using a wider variety of mediums.