The Only Door I Can Open:
Co-presented by Empowerment Avenue
This exhibition exposes the truth of women’s lives behind bars in the nation’s largest prison for women—Central California Women’s Facility at Chowchilla. Flyaway Productions guided this project with the prompt “How is your bed an antidote?” As co-curators, we responded by working with artists and poets in three different yards to reveal what the prison really is and what it is not. We live under constant surveillance, watched by audio-video cameras on the ceiling, in each yard, at work, and on correctional officers’ mandatory body cameras. As an antidote, many of the artists find solitude in their bed—the only spot they can create the illusion of privacy. Others view it as a gateway to depression.
The stories are varied—no experience alike. Each artist pulls the spirit into a place of feeling, calm, anger, injustice, and solid composure. The women are able to share their ultimate challenges; how they find peace, calm, rest, protection, space to dream and imagine beauty beyond the physical barriers. The bed space is not only the only door we, as incarcerated people can open, but it's simultaneously ours, and an escape to get away for rest and recuperation. Gardens pucker through bar windows, poets bring readers into their worlds. Art has no laws. Voice is justice, freedom is the common goal, and our audience can help create another door we can open.
— Co-curators, Chantell-Jeannette Black and Tomiekia Johnson
Shop the exhibiton
All artwork and a zine of poetry created for this exhibition are available for sale on Empowerment Avenue’s website. The artists are individuals with families they want to support and dreams they deserve a chance to build. Each sale will change their lives.Every artist has identified a price for their artworks. 80% of sales go directly to the artist. The remainder supports Empowerment Avenue to keep this program running.
Since my incarceration I have explored creative art as a coping tool to my circumstances. I never wrote poetry before prison and my words have been inspired by my sorrow as reflected in my poetry. I enjoy painting sceneries or landscapes, typically imagery from my imagination of where I have been, or want to be, or places and things that remind me of my family. I have remained disciplinary free and thus participate in handicraft activities—acrylic painting, drawing, and beading/jewelry making.
I am a self-taught artist and use art books to learn new techniques. This exploration has brought me to a meditation art called Zentangle. It is repetitious pen strokes for mindfulness, and conducted only in pen so that one learns to accept their mistakes. Any good poetry I created was written in the heat of the moment. I enjoy writing styles that can have more than one interpretation. My number one inspiration that keeps me going day-by-day is my precious daughter…whom I am determined to return to one day!
Chantell-Jeannette Black was born and raised in California and started drawing from a young age. She is self taught in painting, beading, jewelry-making, scrapbooking, dance and a plethora of other arts and crafts. She graduated Cum Laude from California State University, Sacramento in 2013 and was teaching an art class in the Central California Women’s Facility’s Art Therapy program before it shut down in 2023. She also volunteers to create holiday decorations for her housing unit, and makes painted decorative pillows and blankets for other incarcerated people to purchase with canteen food. The Only Door I Can Open: Women Exposing Prison Through Art and Poetry is her first curatorial project.
Chantell-Jeannette Black (#WG3093)
505-29-2, P.O. Box 1508, Chowchilla, CA, 93610
Email via GettingOut: Chantell-Jeannette Black #WG3093/ CDCR Central California Women’s Facility CCWF
I call some of my writing “wordart” as some of my work may not be poetry, but may be poetic prose; not fitting in a traditional style, but out of the box. My experiences in sports, college, law enforcement, church, and prison lend to intense artful expressions. I tweet on racism, slavery, false imprisonment, religion, sports, trauma, and restorative justice, to educate, create awareness, and assist people in their own healing journeys. My art is a form of self-defense and community outreach.
Tomiekia Johnson is a black woman born in Torrance and raised in Compton, California. Tomiekia earned a bachelor's degree in public administration (criminal justice) on a basketball scholarship from Cal State Dominguez Hills. She is a certified minister of the Gospel, a distinction obtained while wrongly incarcerated in the Central California Women's Facility, where she is currently housed. Tomiekia has published as a prison journalist in publications like Prison Journalism Project and the Spotlong Review. Her poem “Queen Restored" sold at auction and she wildly impressed judges, staff, and peers with an art exhibit she curated for Black History Month 2022. This project is her second time curating an art exhibition.
Tomiekia Johnson (# WE4176)
510-09-1up, P.O. Box 1508, Chowchilla, CA, 93610
Email via GettingOut: Tomiekia Johnson # WE4176/CDCR Central California Women’s Facility CCWF
I am a doodler by nature, doodling shapes and putting them on flashcards. I then pull out pieces that spark an emotion and share with random people to see what their response is. If one particular image gets continuous response from the viewer, I produce it as an art piece. I try to create images that resonate with the human experience.
Once I've made out an image I stencil it, scan it to a computer to adjust its size, and add color. I’ll then draw that image on canvas or other available surfaces. I finish it off with acrylic or spray paint and computerized backgrounds to fill in negative space. Being incarcerated has influenced the artwork I produce. I used to overthink the subjects that I would like to create, now the art comes to me and I trust it is worthy of representation.
Anna Ruiz was born in Los Angeles and raised in Watts, California. She creates images based on her background as a first-generation Mexican-American woman, living in an unrepresented and underprivileged sector of Los Angeles. She participated in her first art show in 2019, curated at the Central California Women’s Facility at Chowchilla. Anna paroled in 2023.
I make many types of artwork, including portraits on canvases, bedazzled cups and hand painted comforters. I use different paints depending on what look I'm going for—acrylics for detailed pieces, watercolors for landscapes, and spray paints and pastels to achieve a certain look.
I consider myself a modern artist. I don't stay in a certain realm or style, I kind of just go with what feels and looks right. I am influenced often by fashion, patterns and word art. I love inspirational quotes set in front of a pretty background.
I try not to let being incarcerated change my style or my artistic practice. I don't want to make "prison art" in which the viewer knows my status at first glance. I'm in a cell, but never a box. I want my art to be beautiful and free from limits.
Crystal St. Mary was born and raised in Sacramento, CA. Her Louisiana Creole culture influences her art, which is bold, colorful, and full of life. Since incarceration she has had the time to become more serious as an artist and focus on developing her talent from a hobby to what she hopes will blossom into a career.
Crystal St.Mary (#WF8406)
512-21- 3L, P.O. Box 1508, Chowchilla, CA, 93610
Email via GettingOut: Crystal St.Mary #WF8406/CDCR Central California Women’s Facility CCWF
When creating artwork I want to share with the audience the world I live in. In prison the normal becomes the abnormal and the abnormal then normal. My artwork is a combination of material and techniques used to express themes of incarceration and the struggle with explicit bias.
I enjoy working with acrylic paint, finding it most forgiving. However I will use any material I can get my hands on to express what I feel. I like to add texture to my work using pieces of wood, flower petals, glitter or anything that blends with the art piece. I have discovered that this technique makes my work pop out while showing prison and the spirits desire to thrive through it all.
I am the oldest and only woman of six children with parents that migrated from Michoacán and Guadalajara, Mexico to the United States over fifty years ago. Through painting, drawing, beading, collaging and other forms of art I seek to explore, question, and bring awareness to my status as a sixteen year old that was sentenced to die in prison— excessive sentencing, and its effects. Using my own story I touch on themes of restorative justice, rehabilitation, trauma, healing, hardship, resilience, the fear of separation from loved ones, and dying in prison. With my art I hope to bring more awareness to the long history of mass incarceration, the despair in marginalization and continue to impact people.
Elizabeth Lozano is a Latina artist who was born in Torrance, CA and currently resides in Chowchilla, CA. In 2012 Elizabeth received her A.A. in Behavioral and Social Science with Honors from Feather River College. Elizabeth's art has been exhibited in Central California Women's Facility's visiting store. Most recently the facility requested from Elizabeth to help paint affirmations on the sidewalks to uplift the community. Her portrait of incarcerated writer Kwaneta Harris is included in the exhibition Return to Sender: Prison as Censorship, fall 2023.
Elizabeth Lozano (# W65013)
516-2-3L, P.O. Box 1508, Chowchilla, CA, 93610
Email via GettingOut: Elizabeth Lozano # W65013/CDCR Central California Women’s Facility CCWF
“I am, we are all, humans! Although we are incarcerated, we do have hopes and dreams. Many of us are talented, each in our own way.”
I mostly write poetry and musical lyrics that naturally flow from my inner dialect, a mixture of my home tongue Patois and English. Patois is a combination of French-Creole-English and the native language of my home country Jamaica. English is commonly used interchangeably because the languages are so similar. My words originate from my emotions, free-flow writing style, expressing what I’m suppressing through pen to paper. Embracing the natural remedy of life, sitting alone in my bunk late into the night, to reflect on the day, meditate, and write. The words that flow onto paper come from my heart and soul and are influenced by support and advice from amazing people.
The style I use to create fonts is similar to calligraphy, inspired by my moms, who I grew up watching create artistry letters with calligraphy pens. However, being incarcerated, my material options are limited so I seek out ultra-fine point sharpies, micro felt pens, or anything else I can obtain that allows me to grasp the vintage look of calligraphy. I enjoy writing on various mediums and paper, and experimenting to create unique textures or styles of paper.
My most recent writings express my realities of being incarcerated, unlocking my inner emotions free-flowing the pain and stress of incarceration that made me stronger. The constant surveillance and limited supplies led me to innovate scroll-like paper by pouring coffee on newsprint, creating a crisp page that looks antique. This style was used to create my printed poem, Mi Antidote Escape, as a reflection of the timeless suppression of people incarcerated.
Lovelyocean identifies as non-binary trans man, with the pronouns he/him/his. He was born in Ocho Rios, Jamaica and raised there and San Juan, Puerto Rico. He lived between the United States and his home country for several years before settling in California. He is currently incarcerated at Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF) and won an award from the “If Group'' for lyrics that he wrote while incarcerated, an experience that awakened him to his flow of “words of life.” Lovelyocean is still a work-in-progress, drawing from pain and stress to follow his dreams of writing poetry and lyrics. He writes both in English and his home language, Patois, his only secluded space—his bed/bunk, or “antidote”— late at night and in the early morning when everyone else is asleep.
Lovelyocean Williams (#WG0352)
507-31-4L, P.O. Box 1508, Chowchilla, CA 93610
Email via GettingOut: Lovelyocean Williams #WG0352/CDCR Central California Women’s Facility CCWF
When I sit down to draw or paint, I usually go with what I feel in the moment. I express my experiences, situations, and feelings through art. Other people incarcerated within CCWF have recognized my talent and put in requests for me to make them family gifts, often with calligraphy writing. I also make stuffed animals for other mothers incarcerated to send to their children at home. This has sparked a passion within me that I want to continue when I parole.
I use a variety of mediums or materials such as drawing pencils, pens, markers, acrylic, watercolors, pastels and collage with magazines. I make stuffed animals with shirts bought from vendors allowed in quarterly boxes, or donations from others. I use acrylics to paint on faces and features, or to dye the materials.
I grew up in a muliti-cultural family of artists and found inspiration from them. I explored various materials, methods, and mediums until I found drawing, tattooing, and most importantly making stuffed animals. Stuffed animals are a way I can help families reunite even while separated by barbed wire and brick walls. In this work I feel a sense of making amends with society.
Sarah Montoya was born and raised in Los Angeles, California with Mexican and Native American roots. From a young age, her artistic interests ranged from piano to various dance styles such as Aztec, Folklorico, tap, jazz and ballet, as well as drawing, painting, tattooing, and silk screening. At CCWF, she’s drawn posters for COVID awareness, and continues to paint pictures and affirmations on the sidewalks around the facility. Her portrait of incarcerated writer Elizabeth Hawes is included in the exhibition Return to Sender: Prison as Censorship, fall 2023. Currently, Sarah is illustrating a children's book for terminally ill and disabled children and she makes stuffed animals and mails them out to children whose mothers are incarcerated. She hopes to continue the craft as a business endeavor when she paroles.
Sarah Montoya (#WG3594)
CCWF, P.O. Box 1508, Chowchilla, CA, 93610
Email via GettingOut: Sarah Montoya #WG3594/CDCR Central California Women’s Facility CCWF
The type of artwork I make varies according to the resources available. Throughout my life, I have used my art as a means to support myself. I sold hemp jewelry that I macramed and stuffed animals I crocheted. As a little girl, I made crayon portraits depicting characters in books I read and sold them on the street.
Being incarcerated, I work with yarn, use floor wax for glossing and tampons for shading. I’ve even removed the individual fibers from towels, made them into yarn, dyed them with color pencils, and macramed jewelry with it. I love to make something beautiful out of something ugly—that helps bring the spirit back to a place where it can flourish.
Sydney Whalen was born and raised on the island of Oahu. She grew up in the punk rock, underground rave scene, and had guidance from some old-school hippies. When she was 18, she relocated to the Bay Area. Sydney’s artistic style is greatly influenced by her experience as a homeless youth in Hawaii and the culture shock when she left. Her artistic achievments include being featured in a poetry class and modeling in a Gothic Lolita fashion show.
Sydney Whalen (#WG6674)
506-18- 4L, P.O. Box 1508, Chowchilla, CA, 93610
Email via GettingOut: Sydney Whalen #WG6674/CDCR Central California Women’s Facility CCWF
My artwork is an eclectic mix and my use of materials and techniques are simple — paints, color pencils, basic paper and number 2 pencils will suffice. My intent is to share my emotions with my audience. I want them to immediately be able to read the message I’m trying to express without being subtle. I’m influenced by the bold, fantastic, beautiful work I’ve seen in comic books.
Being incarcerated gave me the opportunity to seriously evaluate my choices in life and decide in the direction I now want to travel. I can be an artist committed to her craft and use art as a healthy outlet to express my violent wrongdoings by causing others pain, fear, anger and tragic grief. Incarceration also helped me tap into my creative side. I wouldn't have imagined being able to paint or being unafraid to try something new. I am now spreading my artwork all throughout the institution with paintings that are therapeutic for me to do and are uplifting and encouraging for others to view. I aspire to continue spreading this joy and hope to do so even after I parole.
Vegas Bray was born in San Diego, California. Vegas joined the United States Navy as soon as she graduated high school and ventured out to Illinois to begin learning her trade. Her service took her to Dubai, Thailand, Guam, Hong Kong, Tokyo and Malaysia, but Vegas never dreamed of being able to showcase her artistic talents on such a large scale or platform such as this project— her biggest achievement to date.
Vegas Bray (# WF4071)
512-07-1L, P.O. Box 1508, Chowchilla, CA, 93610
Email via GettingOut: Vegas Bray # WF4071/CDCR Central California Women’s Facility CCWF
prison walls is empowering
prison walls is empowering
— Chantell-Jeannette Black, co-curator
prison walls is empowering
— Tomiekia Johnson, co-curator
Are a call to action
The lives and experiences of incarcerated women remain a mystery to the public. Among a sea of hard truths, the passion of our art and the pain in our words, this is a severely oppressed, underdeveloped, underserved, forgotten and lost segment of society. These are some of the facts.
The U.S. leads the world for incarcerating women.
CITATION: "Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2023," by Wendy Sawyer and Peter Wagner, Report, Prison Policy Initiative, 2023.
One of the largest women’s prisons in the world is right here in California—Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF). As of August 23rd the CDCR reported the CCWF population at 2435, far exceeding its design capacity of 1990.
Between 2008 and 2016, women lifers increased by 20%, compared to 15% increase for men.
CITATION: “The Meaning of Life: The Case for Abolishing Life Sentences” by Marc Mayer and Ashley Nellis, The New Press, 2018
One study of 42 survivors of domestic abuse convicted of murder in California found that all but 2 were given life sentences.
CITATION: Elizabeth Dermody Leonard. "Convicted Survivors: The Imprisonment of Battered Women Who Kill." Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2002.
The majority of women lifers are survivors of domestic abuse. 84% of women in one study reported histories of some type of past abuse—physical, sexual, and/or emotional.
CITATION: ”Lived Experiences of Women Lifers: Worst of the Worst” by Meredith Huey Dye. Study by Middle Tennessee State University, CURE: Lifelong Newsletter; volume 9 issue no.3, November 2022
Women of color are disproportionately subjected to extreme sentences nationally. One out of every 39 Black women are sentenced to life without parole compared to one out of every 59 white women.
CITATION: “In the extreme women serving life without parole and death sentences in the U.S.” The Sentencing Project, Washington DC, 2021.
“Between these bars, can I stand on your shoulders?
I’ve hit the bar ceiling, generously getting older.
Will you lend me a helping hand, stand in the gap for me?
Can I call you to action, paint you in my tapestry?”
Actions you can take
Support the artists
- Connect directly with the artists and curators.
See Artist Statements sections for contact information
- Volunteer with Empowerment Avenue to mentor or support an artist.
Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org sharing your interest.
- Buy art and poetry from the artists.
Go to empowermentave.org/store. The artists are individuals with families they want to support and dreams they deserve a chance to build. Each sale will change their lives.
- Make a donation to Prison Arts Collective (a partnership with California State University) and help get art supplies to artists at CCWF. Send brand new materials via amazon, online vendor, or USPS to:
C. Waybright CRM
ATTN: CCWF Art Collective Program
P.O. Box 1501
Chowchilla CA 93610
- Sign Tomiekia’s petition. Co-curator, Tomiekia Johnson, is fighting for parole.
Read her story and sign her petition on Change.org.
Organizations Working to Decarcerate
- Donate HERE to Empowerment Avenue to keep this work going.
- Stay informed about our work and sign up for the Empowerment Avenue Newsletter
Go to empowermentave.org
- Learn about other important organizations:
Essie Justice Group www.essiejusticegroup.org
Initiate Justice www.initiatejustice.org
Ella Baker Center for Human Rights www.ellabakercenter.org
Critical Resistance www.criticalresistance.org
Californians United for a Responsible Budget(CURB) www.curbprisonspending.org
Care not Cages @carenotcagez
Legal Services for Prisoners with Children www.prisonerswithchildren.org
- VOTING RIGHTS IN PRISON. ACA 4
Would give California voters a chance to restore voting rights to people in prison.
For more information, go to: https://initiatejustice.org/changing-laws/voting-rights-in-prison-aca-4/
- ENDING SLAVERY IN PRISON. ACA 8
Gives California voters a chance to end involuntary servitude of incarcerated people. It puts a constitutional amendment on the ballot to remove the 13th amendment clause from the California constitution.
For more information: https://aclucalaction.org/bill/aca-8/
- The EQUAL CHANCE ACT
Gives people incarcerated on gun enhancements a resentencing hearing unless the person is an unreasonable risk to public safety.
For more information: https://initiatejustice.org/changing-laws/equal-chance-act-ab-1310/
This exhibition originated as part of Flyaway Productions’
multi-year exploration of the experiences of people impacted by incarceration. The partnership between Flyaway Productions, Empowerment Avenue (EA) and Museum of African Diaspora (MoAD) began in 2020 with the digital exhibition Meet Us Quickly: Painting for Justice from Prison, curated from prison by Rahsaan Thomas (Executive Director of EA) and composed of artworks by men at San Quentin.
The Only Door I Can Open: Women Exposing Prison Through Art and Poetry is a repeat collaboration focused on the experiences of women from the Central California Women’s Facility, curated from that prison by Chantell-Jeannette Black and Tomiekia Johnson. The exhibition is one facet of Flyaway’s project If I Give You My Sorrows which explores women’s complex relationships to their beds.