- Associated Press - Saturday, December 21, 2019

TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) - Leora Sommer credits drawing for keeping her out of trouble, allowing for her early release from the state’s prison for women.

Sommer was released in October after serving two years for driving under the influence while her license was suspended for a previous DUI. While incarcerated, she took to drawing, something Sommer says she could focus on for hours, the Arizona Daily Star reports.

Sommer’s art is now part of a monthlong exhibit at Coffee X Change, 6841 E. Camino Principal. The artwork by women from the Perryville prison complex in Goodyear is for sale. Prices range from $10 to $400.

Kim Crecca, convenor of the Diocesan Prison Ministry, collects the women’s work and displays it in exhibits throughout Arizona, helping the artists sell it. She collects the money from sales and deposits it to the artist’s account, where they can send it to relatives, save it for their release or use it to buy more supplies in the commissary, Crecca said.

Artwork from about 25 women will be on display at Coffee X Change through the end of December. Information about the artists and what each particular piece means to them is on the back of each drawing and painting.

The women also provide a mailing address in case a customer wants to write to them.

Artworks from the inmates hang on the west side of the Coffee X Change dining room. They include elaborate and realistic paintings of animals, drawings of women, Native American warriors and flowers. Mediums and skill levels vary.

Sommer uses colored pencils for her drawings. Her favorite works are those with Native American symbols, like the drawing of the Hopi sun. Sommer is Navajo and her boyfriend, who she says has been her biggest supporter, is Hopi. She was inspired to draw the Hopi sun after taking part in a tribal ceremony and seeing some of the tribe’s artwork, she said.

While drawing in prison, Sommer says she would focus entirely on perfecting her lines and her art, which kept her from getting into fights or from paying attention to other prisoners around her. She said she was released early because of good behavior.

Sommer didn’t draw or consider herself an artist before she was arrested.

“Sometimes when I look at it (her art) I’m surprised, I think to myself, ‘Did I really create that?’” Sommer said. “I never thought I was capable of drawing anything like it because I never tried before.”

Now that she’s out, she said she plans to keep drawing and keep improving her artistic skills.

Bob Latham, Crecca’s father, buys a lot of the women’s art, especially if he finds out they’re about to be released so they have money when they get out.

Creating art while in prison helps the women feel useful, says Latham, who spent 12 years in a Texas prison and spent a lot of his time doing leather work while incarcerated. He said during his time in prison, he learned how worthless people feel locked up just breathing air.

“I know what it means to these ladies here to be able to get somebody to purchase their work,” he said. “It makes them feel like they have done something worthwhile.”

Candice “Taffy” Wright, one of the artists, has taken art classes since she was 5 years old and attended the California Institute of the Arts. She teaches art at Perryville and uses watercolors.

“The two best ways to cope with prison are to have a purpose and to help others,” Wright says in the description on the back of her art.

“The art program helps me channel emotions constructively on canvas, while teaching others the skill to do that also.”

The women are resourceful with supplies, curling paper to create designs like flowers, carving soap, and cutting manila folders, paper or canvas into smaller squares to maximize their number of drawings.

Prisoners who are part of an art program at Perryville have more access to supplies like paint and canvas, Crecca said. Others use on what’s available in the commissary - colored pencils, paper and manila folders.

“They’re so driven to create something beautiful in that place,” Crecca said. “They’ll use just about anything that they can to do it.”

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