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Inmates show creativity with art

Published: Friday, May 10, 2013 6:00 a.m. CDT • Updated: Friday, May 10, 2013 3:23 p.m. CDT
In this April 26, 2013 photo, Tazewell County Correctional Officer Marissa Force stands with some of the soap carvings that inmates created for a contest between two cell blocks at the prison in Pekin. (AP Photo/Pekin Times, Skyler Edwards)

PEKIN (AP) — The artists' sculptures could grace a gallery.

Under deadline they produced shapes finely detailed, draped with colors mixed soft to bold, molded by imagination, hot water, fingernails and toothbrushes — the only tools they had.

A boy in straw hat and overalls dangles a fishing line from a pier into a placid pond, his dog lying at his side. A lifesize iguana. A McDonald's cheeseburger, fries and a drink, carved to scale and that artist's cravings.

He's an inmate in Pod B at the Tazewell County Justice Center. His medium was soap.

Along with coffee, Kool-Aid powder and the colors soaked away from Irish Spring soap and Colgate toothpaste boxes, that was all that Marissa Force and a fellow corrections officer gave their jail pods' residents to produce the art Force displayed Friday.

All things considered, it is stunning.

"They only had 30 days" to craft their pieces before time expired April 26 on their projects, if not their jail sentences, Force said. "I gave them a theme — spring and summer."

Two dozen inmates, all men from their late teens to mid-30s, took up Force's challenge to use their time in custody on a soap art contest between the jail's B and C pods.

The winner in each pod will get a pizza. The winning pod will enjoy a first-run movie with popcorn. Judging comes Sunday from the ministers who visit the jail for weekly services.

Force first employed the morale-boosting project 18 months ago, without the element of contest between pods. The results surprised jail officials then, though inmates mostly limited their work to the individual hotel-size Dial soap cakes the jail doled out.

She returned to the idea when she was assigned back to a day-time shift and showed her new inmates what her last artists in captivity produced to give them ideas.

"They started using the plastic cups we issue them to shave off the soap and mix it with hot water" to build mounds of hardened paste, Force said. From there inspiration, effort and competition bloomed.

"I believe this guy was up all night last night" putting the final touches on the fishing boy sculpture, Force said. "They all helped each other. They would ask what the other pod is doing.

"They love it. It keeps them busy and occupied while they're in here."

Force plans to challenge another inmate class soon to explore their artistic sides.

"I don't look at them in terms of their charges, just as individuals," she said.

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