It's probably not what any jail warden expected an art class to look like: inmates wrapping sheets of glass and whole plates in a towel and then smashing them to bits. Depending on how you looked at it, the razorlike shards were either a huge security risk or an innovative art material critical for making mosaics.
Sheriff Michael McCormack, who runs the Dukes County House of Corrections in Edgartown, opted for the latter perspective, but not without some precautions.
"Obviously, we had to think twice about the security," he said. "We had them do it in a confined space, the cafeteria room."
After every class, the four inmate art students were frisked by guards to make sure nothing lethal made its way back into the rest of the jail. That done, the sheriff said, all that was left was pure rehabilitation.
This week, the art went up on the wall: four framed pieces prominently displayed against a backdrop of white brick in a room that serves triple duty as dining hall, weight room and computer lab.
The event was not accompanied by either wine or cheese or a gathering of any sort. Only one of the artists is still in jail, the rest already having been released. But the artwork now has a permanent home. "Now that it's displayed, hopefully other inmates will be inspired," said Sheriff McCormack.
The pieces are striking images, mosaics that glisten from the bits of glass and glazed pottery. One of the more beautiful ones, created by an inmate born in Jamaica, depicts a cheerful Caribbean scene with fish swimming in a blue lagoon and the sun shining over it all.
Another picture conveys the pain of incarceration, a severed, shackled hand reaching into a field of sharp bits of pottery. A third image is clearly religious, a red cross centered against a background of glass made to look stained in a terra cotta color.
William Gregorio did that one. A convicted burglar, Mr. Gregorio had extra years tacked onto his sentence after escaping from the jail back in 1997. He won't get out until 2005. He's got time on his hands.
The posting for an art class went up last summer, and Mr. Gregorio, 33, figured it beat watching television. "I've been in jail half my life," he said, "and I never had any art program to go to, any rehabilitation 'til I came here."
When he signed up for the class, he thought it would be drawing. That and some papier mache were about all the art exposure he had ever had. "I'd heard of mosaics, but I wasn't really interested in it," he said.
That soon changed. Cindy West, the teacher who volunteered her Saturday mornings in the jail, had her reasons for picking mosaics as the medium. For one thing, it was what she knew how to do.
More importantly, she said, it's the perfect artistic process for inmates. "It works as a metaphor," she said. "You're taking people whose lives are broken and working with them to put it back together."
Ms. West, 46, teaches Spanish at the Tisbury School and has worked in prisons before, first as an alcohol counselor and then in a women's prison in California, where she ran a similar art project.
"The public perception is we don't want to give [inmates] anything," she said. "But the vast majority of prison inmates get released back into neighborhoods. As citizens, how do we take responsibility for returning them whole and complete?"
The course was supposed to last just six weeks, but it lasted from August through most of December, forcing Ms. West to miss most of her kids' soccer games. Two hours every Saturday morning, the class met.
"Usually I sleep in the mornings," said Mr. Gregorio, "but on Saturdays I was up anticipating the art. I was excited about it. I'd never done anything like it."
Ms. West showed her students pictures of mosaic art from Mexico and photographs of avant garde buildings designed by the Catalonian architect Antonio Gaudi. "Ideas were flying all over the place," said Mr. Gregorio.
And the classes spawned conversations outside the two-hour block on Saturdays. "We talked about it a lot," he said.
It was hard work, designing, fitting in pieces and laying in the grout. "It got heavier every week," said the artist.
More than anything, though, Mr. Gregorio came to view his art not so much as a way to express his individuality but as a way to relate to other inmates. In addition to the art class, he is also taking a correspondence course to become an ordained minister.
"I'm here for a while. It will give me a chance to witness to somebody," he said, explaining the religious imagery in his piece.
But Mr. Gregorio also admires the work of the fellow inmates, the mathematical precision of a friend's art and the beauty of another piece. He can relate to their quest, the desire behind the art to be known and even remembered for something other than what landed them in jail.
Mr. Gregorio said he has a blank book filled with the drawings of inmates who have come through the jail. "There's a lot of talent in here," he said.
The art is a way for them to communicate, and Mr. Gregorio's passion is more for communication and ministry than for visual art. The experience, though, gave him a sense of accomplishment that could propel his dream.
When he gets out, he'd like to start up a program that gives "support to guys leaving jail." There's nothing like that now, he said.
"I'd visit with them six months before their release date," he said. "Be there to pick them up at the door with money to buy them clothes. Who better to do that than a former inmate?"