Windham’s Rembrandt: A Review
My very first teaching job long ago was in a federal prison in Lompoc, California. Friends of Richard Nixon, like Haldeman and Ehrlichman, resided in the minimum security buildings, outside the walls. But my classes were in the big house, reached only after a gauntlet of slamming security doors, armed guards, barbed wire, and stultifying lime-green corridors.
Windham’s Rembrandt, then, the story of an art teacher’s experiences in the Texas prison system, was like a gigantic flashback for me.
The stories in this book reflect the experiences of James L. Humphries, written well by his son, Jonathan R. Humphries. James, the dad, is an ex-Marine, and a credentialed teacher in math and art. These stories begin with the idea to create the first art program in the TDC (Texas Department of Corrections). The Windham school district runs all the “behind bars” education programs for Texas, and when James accepted their teaching offer, he began a 13 year, off-and-on intensive relationship with the residents of East Texas prisons, both the regular inmates, and the criminally insane, part of a special unit called The Walls.
What makes James Humphries, and thus these stories, special is that he truly cares about people. The poor choices his students had made to get themselves incarcerated were anguishing for him to hear. In fact, the stress of watching so many of his students self-destruct is what caused him to retire.
For example, Reginald, age 20, had gone into a panic attack when sentenced to 15 years in prison. “When he began attending my art therapy sessions, his attitude changed for the better. He smiled all the time” (p. 122). Still, Reginald drew the same thing every day, until one day he changed it. When Humphries asked why, he smiled, “Docs say I’m all better now”(p. 122). Shortly afterward, Reginald hanged himself with his belt.
Not content just to tell stories though, Humphries uses these shocking experiences to theorize about the meaning of art in inmates’ lives. “I noticed this sudden change in the symbols drawn by other patients, before they too were found dead from suicide…” (p. 123). Sadly, his insights were ignored by the psychiatric staff: “ ‘Quite interesting,’ they said, and left it at that.”(p. 123)
The metaphor that runs throughout this book is “the beast” within all of us. This is the term Humphries uses to describe the inmate who commits suicide after telling him all is well. It describes Kenneth, the inmate who kills any other inmate who crosses him. When one tried to stab him, Kenneth relates, “So I take his little knife out of my hand, wrestle him to the ground, and saw his head off.”
Yet Kenneth likes Humphries. This mystified one of the guards: “You should know he’s talked more with you than… with anyone, ever!…It wouldn’t be wise to get too friendly” (p. 133). Humphries, however, treats people as they treat him, regardless of their past: “I know the men in prison had all done some sort of wrong, but there is more to a man’s nature than his actions” (pp.132-3).
The oppressive prison climate was not easy on Humphries, and ultimately he left. But he survived 13 years because of his own artistic talent, and his ability to communicate that to the inmates, and because he judged them as they were in his class, not for the crimes they had committed before. And, like Kenneth, no matter what beasts lurked within, they liked him for it.
This is a well-written story of a talented, dedicated, and insightful teacher in difficult circumstances. Windham’s Rembrandt is certainly worth reading.
Bruce Roberts, who may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, is an accomplished sculptor and schoolteacher from Hayward, California.