Nikki McClure’s bold, black-and-white designs fill popular calendars, posters and journals. They depict scenes from her wholesome life in Olympia, paired with words and phrases like “eat more kale” and “honor.”
What many fans of her art don’t know is that McClure’s pieces aren’t drawings or woodblock prints. She carves them out of paper, using an X-Acto knife.
“[I start with a] black piece of paper, cutting away things and being left with an image behind that’s still the piece of paper, but now it’s all carved up, like lace, and has an image and a story in it,” McClure said.From performing in front of crowds to cutting paper
The technique was born out of necessity, says McClure. In the early 1990s, she was a recent graduate of the Evergreen State College at time when self-expression was the norm.
“The air was electrified,” she said. “Expressing yourself and your inner-turmoil by making up a new song every day was just kind of the way you did things around here.”
She got caught up in the riot grrrls music scene and performed solo “sung word” compositions, touring with bands like Kicking Giant and Bikini Kill. But she says it wasn’t sustainable.
“You know, I’d be in these bars, singing without a microphone. And that’s a very raw, emotionally-vulnerable state to be in with a bunch of drunk guys,” McClure said.
That’s when she started making her art.
“Starting to express myself more visually was a lot more safer place to be,” she said, adding the birds and the plants that appear in her work are all versions of herself. “And I could express these ideas and these thoughts, and these feelings I was having in a safe way – much safer than singing in front of a bar.”
Paper-cutting ended up being the perfect solution. It was an affordable way to create graphic images that she could reproduce in many sizes using a copy machine. She first used the technique to create a children’s book, titled “Apple,” then moved on to create her first calendar in 1998.Scenes from an idyllic life
Nowadays, McClure finds safety and inspiration at her beachfront home, near Priest Point Park in Olympia. Daily walks with her family are part of the routine.
“The thing about a beach is it’s always changing in these subtle ways. Like there’s a winter beach, as opposed to the summer beach. It’s like a different character,” she said.
On a recent day, I found her young son and her husband digging up an old tire that got left in the sand. Nearby, a raft they built floated on the waves — the subject of an upcoming book. McClure says part of what she wants to do as she captures snippets of life here is to remind people to get out and enjoy nature.
“Or if they’re not able to do it, then they can be transported to a moment in their past when they were. And they can have that memory and recall it,” she said.‘Be inspired and then act upon that throughout the day’
McClure’s calendars and posters are full of shorelines and woody outdoor scenes, gardens and the farmers market as well as wholesome vignettes of family life indoors. They include single words and phrases.
“Often the image comes first, and then I then think about words, but I try not to grab the first word that comes first,” McClure said, explaining her process. “So oftentimes, there’s a sort of Alice-in-Wonderland event where I kind of get lost in the dictionary and following word origins and also synonyms of the words, and [I end up] kind of traveling through the book that way.”
Some of McClure’s wording almost sounds like propaganda: “witness,” “take action,” “wake up.” The artist says she’s inspired by the Works Progress Administration campaigns of the 1930s and ‘40s.
McClure illustrates values like self-sustenance, working the land and conservation, and aims to effect positive change within communities. She says she encourages face-to-face communication, and wants to remind people that they have power to get together and make change.
“We’re humans, and humans do a lot of terrible things,” McClure said, adding she aims to emphasize our strengths, ”to reinforce those strengths and to fine-tune them so we’re ready for the work that needs to be done.”
But she purposely projects a softer tone.
“It has to be something people can put up in their kitchen. And it should just not be totally depressing, nor necessarily a call for immediate action or guilt-ridden moment,” she said. You’ve gotta get your coffee, be inspired and then act upon that throughout the day.”Tiny sculptures
McClure thinks of her works as tiny sculptures. And when you see the originals, you know what she means. She doesn’t always glue everything flat, so you can see the texture of fine details, like a roll of plastic bags at an apple stand coming toward you in the frame.
“Most people are aware of my work, and what their exposure to it has been is the graphic interpretation, which is a flattened version of it. But the original is very finely sculptural. And most people, when they see an original, still think of it as like a wood cut. Or flat. Like it really takes a close eye and a moment of pause to see that it’s a 3D object,” she said.
Even museum people say at first glance, they assumed McClure’s images were woodblock prints.
“I think the first time that I saw her work, it never occurred to me that it was paper-cutting,” said Nora Atkinson, who curated a solo show of McClure’s work at Bellevue Art Museum in 2012.
Atkinson, who is now with the Smithsonian Institution, says McClure’s pieces are intricate and mesmerizing, especially when you consider how carefully each composition is cut from a single piece of paper. And many of them are portraits of actual people.
“When you consider trying to portray someone with light and shadow in black and white with only positive and negative space, and the kind of images she’s able to capture in that — it’s really outstanding,” she said. “It’s the simplicity of the image and the clarity of her message that’s really the charm of her work.”A retrospective of the artist
Looking at about 20 years of McClure’s collected works, from her first piece to her recent work, Atkinson says the artist’s growth in techniques and skills is evident. The retrospective is now showing in California at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History.
McClure says seeing the exhibition has been eye-opening for her as well. She says, along with the t
echnical aspect, because her work is so autobiographical, it also shows the story of a woman coming into her own, “where there’s this confidence and this growth.”
“And I become a mother, and [there’s] the learning and the love that grows from that. And in a way, it’s a story that you don’t really see much in museums, to see the story of a woman growing up,” she said.
McClure was recently included in a catalogue of contemporary masters of paper cutting. And with two new books just released, it’s a busy and successful time.
McClure, who says she never aimed for this kind of fame, seems surprised by it.
“You know, you’re just making pictures because you have to make the things that are inside you come out,” she said. “And it’s been kind of incredible that it’s been received so well and widely and that also feeds not just my soul but my family. It’s just kind of mind-boggling.”
And McClure is anything but complacent. She says she doesn’t want to squander the audience she’s built.
“What’s my retrospective going to be when I’m 60? That’s what I want to know. And it’d better be good,” she said.
Bruce Stobie may be blind, but he’s getting ready to do something that most of us with perfect eyesight would never attempt. On June 10, he’s setting out on a three-week round-trip expedition to climb North America’s tallest peak, Denali.
Stobie grew up in Des Moines, Washington, loving to climb. But everything changed on Nov. 5, 1983. He was one of nine college kids packed into a truck driving through the Cascades when the driver lost control. The last thing Stobie ever saw was the truck flying into the air. He smashed, face-first, into the roll bar of the vehicle before being tossed out.
“When it happened, I thought I was going to die,” Stobie said. “[It] detached the retinas in both eyes, and the sight loss was pretty much instantaneous.”
Stobie lay in the hospital recovering, trying to come to terms with what it means to be a blind person. So he decided to set some goals: finish college, run a marathon and climb a mountain.
“[Climbing Mount] Rainier had been something I had always wanted to do, so I put these things in my bucket list to accomplish,” Stobie said.‘There were all these obstacles’
But the first time Stobie went hiking after losing his eyesight was terrible.
“There were all these obstacles; [I was] stumbling over things, you know. I had the grieving process I was going through,” Stobie said. “I loved being in the mountains when I could see just to look at stuff, and I couldn’t do that. So it was just like, why would I want to do this? This is not fun.”
He gave up his climbing dreams for a long time. He got married, had children, worked for Boeing as an information-technology analyst.
But about nine years ago, he found himself ready to try again. He convinced a former Boeing coworker, Ron Fleck, who taught mountaineering classes in his spare time, to take him along. Fleck says he proposed a hike in a place where he usually takes beginners.
“He told me he had already been on that hike years ago when he could see, and that was a hike for wimps. So I thought, ‘OK, I’m going to have my hands full,’” Fleck said.‘I think if I could see, I’d be wanting to move a lot faster’
Stobie, needless to say, is no wimp. At age 51, he has run four marathons.
On a recent sunny day, Stobie met up at a trailhead near Issaquah with Fleck and another climbing buddy, Charlie Soncrant. Stobie had gotten up at 2:45 a.m., and had already worked out for two and a half hours. But that wasn’t enough; now he was ready to charge up this mountain. But he can’t do it alone.
Fleck and Soncrant are Stobie’s eyes when they’re on the trail. Fleck leads, and Stobie follows him, holding on to a rope attached to Fleck’s backpack in one hand and a cane in the other. Soncrant follows behind, making sure Stobie doesn’t go off the edge.
As the trio hiked, Fleck called out the terrain every few steps.
“The rocks are closer together, so you probably just want to take a lot more in the way of baby steps, OK, Bruce?” Fleck said.
Stobie says he has a good mental memory and can picture the views. But the joy he gets from this comes from the physical exertion and pushing himself.
“I like seeing how fast I can go,” Stobie said. “I think if I could see, I’d be wanting to move a lot faster.”‘He just gained this trust’
Still, it’s one thing to hike in the Issaquah Alps and another to navigate around crevasses and ice falls to get to the top of Mount Rainier when you can’t even see where you’re going. Five years ago, Stobie signed up to climb the mountain and showed up to an orientation session. His guide, Mike Haugen, was looking over his clients’ medical information when he saw the word “blind” on Stobie’s sheet.
“I kind of did a double-take at it, and thought maybe he’s got a really high prescription for his glasses or something like that,” Haugen said. “I went and talked to one of the owners, and they said, ‘Oh, we forgot to tell you, he’s blind-blind.’ I kind of went into panic mode. I had never guided a blind climber before.”
But Stobie and Haugen agree that it was serendipitous that they were assigned to each other, because they work so well together.
“He just gained this trust, and I trusted him in terms of following my directions, and we got to the point where he would walk up to an edge of a crevasse and I would say, `Take a small right step and a big left step,’ and he would step right over the crevasse,” Haugen said. “It was pretty amazing.”
They made it to the top, and now they’re teaming up again, with one other guide, for an even more challenging task – climbing to the top of the 20,322-foot Alaskan peak, Denali. They’ll be carrying 70-pound packs, and pulling sleds loaded with gear and food for much of the way.
Stobie’s wife, Gwyn, is trying not to think about the dangers.
“I thought that climbing, for him, was like a fancy hike, and it wasn’t until I started seeing some of the pictures that I realized that this was serious stuff,” she said. “I’m more than a little nervous.”
There are a few other blind mountaineers who have gotten to the top of Denali, but the mountain can be deadly even for people with perfect eyesight.One soft-footed step at a time
As Stobie and his friends headed down the trail on a recent day, they traveled a lot slower than hikers usually do. Falling while facing downhill is more dangerous. All the way down, Fleck advised Stobie where to put his feet.
“Alright, so we’re going to step off this root. It’s about a foot down. You might want to go left, sideways,” Fleck said.
It’s almost as if Stobie takes two steps for each one. He first probes with his foot to test whether the spot is solid, then, when he feels comfortable, takes an actual step.
“Yeah, it’s like, is this a safe one? No? Readjust. Yes? Go ahead and put your weight on it,” Stobie said.
That’s just one of the ways Stobie has to approach climbing differently than a seeing person would. And as he prepares for Denali, he’s sought advice from one of the only other blind people who’s ever climbed the mountain, Erik Weihenmayer.
“I’ve had both of my eyes removed, so these are prosthetic eyes,” Stobie said. “Erik has prosthetic eyes, too, so one of the questions I had was, ‘How did you deal with the cold?’”
Stobie was worried his eyelids might freeze to his prosthetic eyes. Now he knows to come prepared with goggles and saline solution.‘This is who I am’
Stobie is still fundraising for his expedition, which will cost about $45,000. That’s more than it would cost if he could see, because he has to have two guides.
“There are points, you know, definitely, where I was like, ‘I wish I could see. This would be so easy,’” Stobie said. “It’s like, well, that might be true, it may not. But you know, this is who I am. This is what I have to deal with. It’s like, live with it.”
Stobie hopes that in a month and a half, he’ll stand at the top of Denali and feel and hear the wind and the calls of triumph from his climbing partners. Then he’ll come down, carefully, and most likely, set another goal to reach.
The trees are blooming, and spring is in the air. For Steve Gray and Toshio Inahara, that means it’s time for razor clams.
It’s the height of razor clam season in the Pacific Northwest, which means droves of avid diggers will take to the beaches at low tide in search of telltale bubbles and divots in the sand. Each will aim to dig up their daily legal limit of 15. All in all, two or three million of the shellfish will go home to meet a breaded and fried fate.A hobby that keeps ‘an older gentleman young’
On a recent day, Gray and Inahara set out just as they have dozens — maybe hundreds — of times before, with plastic buckets in hand, waders on and carrying cylindrical sand-suctioning tools emblazoned with the name of an odd brand: Clamhawg.
Gray, a fisherman and cranberry farmer, met Inahara about 30 years ago, when he operated on Gray’s worn-out legs.
When each figured out that the other was a fishing and clam-digging type, the two hit it off. They’ve been digging together ever since.
“What keeps an older gentleman young?” asks Gray. Answer: clam digging, of course.
Gray is in his 70s and Inahara in his 90s, but they don’t plan on stopping any time soon. Inahara says they’ll continue the hobby “as long as we can walk and dig.”
We head for “clam central,” the stretch of beach that promises the juiciest bivalves. After all, this is Long Beach, Washington, the town that cooked the “world’s largest clam fritter” in 1940. The chefs used 200 pounds of clams, 240 eggs, and garden hoes and shovels in place of spatulas.
On this day, the men are only after their legal limit of 15 clams each.‘There’s nothing like them’
Gray, who does all the talking, calls Inahara “Toke” or “Doc.” Inahara is almost completely silent. Neither waxes poetic about why clamming is a favorite hobby; it just is.
“You’re doing your thing out of doors,” says Gray.
“They’re wonderful. There’s nothing like them,” says Inahara.
“To sit down to a clam dinner is one of the most labor-intensive dinners you will have. You have to come down and dig them, you have to clean them, then you have to cook them. It takes a lot of time. It’s worth it.”
Gray delights in catching things that are edible and difficult to get, and all the better if they’re sea dwellers. According to his daughter, Leeann Gray, that’s what makes him a dedicated fisherman. Once, she says, as his storm-damaged boat was sinking, he refused to get on the rescue helicopter until the very last minute. His pregnant wife sat at home, listening on the radio as the Coast Guard tried to convince him to climb aboard.
He can tell you every detail of how the clam digests its food, and where to find the best ones.
“As far as you can look out there, there are clams that far,” Gray says, pointing to the ocean. “But they will be smaller clams, because this is the area that is exposed to where the algae come in. These clams get served lunch and dinner a lot more than those clams deeper out. So, the bigger clams are in this middle intertidal area. You’re standing in it. This is good clams.”‘It’s more of an art to use a shovel’
Back in the day, Gray says, he’d always dig with a shovel.
“When we were young, we would call people bad names because they used these things instead of a shovel,” says his childhood friend, Gary Stamp, who has also joined in on the fun. “It’s more of an art to use a shovel.”
But aching joints and shoulder replacements convinced them to turn to using clam “guns,” which allow a digger to extract a neat column of sand.
Even with a clam gun, digging is no easy task. Gray and Inahara stomp around the sand like angry flamenco dancers in waders. Then they walk back the way they came, looking for “shows” — quarter-sized circular divots in the sand where a spooked clam has pulled in its neck in fear.
When they spot an adequately-sized show, they position the mouth of the clam gun around it.
The gun makes a sucking noise like a giant plunger being pulled out of a mud puddle. It whistles as the sand, which hopefully contains the shellfish prey, falls out in a column.
“You gotta get down there fast enough,” says Inahara as he gets down on hand and knee to reach in for a particularly quick-moving clam that managed to dodge the gun.
These are the Formula 1 drivers of the clam world. They are remarkably fleet of foot. (Yes, each clam has a foot, which looks like a flat slug.) Using their bodies like pistons wrapped in shells, they can dig at about a foot a minute. In a race with other squishy things, they would leave even the fastest snails in the dust.
In a race with hungry humans, they hold their own. Gray and Inahara repeatedly lunge into the wet holes to grab at the trunk-like necks disappearing in the liquid sand.A clear-blooded creature that can create quicksand
The Pacific razor clam, known as Siliqua patula, is a weird animal. It has clear blood, and is capable of creating quicksand, which is the trick to how it can dig so quickly. It’s one of the few living things that can boast having its butt and its mouth in the same place. It can squirt water like a spitting llama.
Every year around this time, razor clams are at their fattest, juiciest state. That’s because they’ve been stocking up for months for the biggest bivalve event of the year: the big squirt. When the seawater gets just warm enough, the clams all spurt their sperm and eggs into the water. The cloud creates a new generation of baby razor clams, which will float around for weeks in the ocean, growing their tiny shells.
The adult’s sleek, strong shell gives the clam its name. When they break, they can be really sharp. Luckily, they always direct their hinge-side toward the ocean, so experienced diggers like Inahara and Gray know to reach in without slashing a hand.
These clams live completely solitary lives, burrowing in a sandy intertidal spot early in life and moving up and down in the same two feet or so of the same sand.
When Gray and Inahara dig up their clams and toss them in a bucket, they’re unknowingly creating a little clam reunion; it’s the first time those clams have touched one of their own.
But the important thing, according to Gray and Inahara, is that they taste good, especially breaded, fried, and dunked in tartar sauce, Tabasco, or Heinz 57.
“A light layer of fine flower, egg, and cracker crumb, and they are excellent,” says Gray.
Razor clam season lasts from October to May, but only 15 to 35 of those days are open for digging. Springtime is when scheduled digs rev up. Thanks to an abundance of large clams this year, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has added eight more days to the current dig season, at five designated beaches in southern Washington.
Farrel Thomas sits on a wooden stool, occasionally stealing away a quick spoonful of pudding before another child approaches, wide-eyed and slightly terrified.
This one wants a panda.
“You’re gonna make me work, huh?” Thomas barks.
His lumbering figure betrays impeccable technique. Claw-like hands work nimbly, bringing balloons to life. In seconds, rainbow-colored kittens, crowns, swords and flowers blossom from his weathered hands.
In Thomas’ line of work, you need a stage name that, well, pops. Mister Twister was taken, which is how he came to be known to many as the Balloon Man, which suits his own economy of words. Officially, though, he’s called Twister Thomas, and he’s twisted a decade’s worth of balloons directly under the giant neon clock at Pike Place Market.
Dressed as part swamp thing and part clown, Thomas wears a ketchup-red wig that clashes with his blond horseshoe mustache. He’s part of a pantheon of eccentrics, wanderers and troubadours that calls the market home.Calling Pike Place Market home
Thomas lives just a stone’s throw away from his work station, at a HUD-subsidized redbrick apartment complex called the Stewart House. The rooms are small, to say the least, not much larger than a walk-in closet. But they’re cheap. Most of the single occupancy rooms rent for as little as $350 a month. Most residents who qualify for subsidies pay around 30 percent of their total income to live here. For a few lucky tenants on the fourth floor, sprawling views of downtown and Puget Sound are also included.
With more than 350 apartments here, Pike Place Market functions much like a small town within the city. And like any town, Pike Place Market has a newspaper — two, in fact. It also has a medical clinic, a food bank, a small governing body, and, of course, a great many produce stalls, butchers, bakeries, cafes, bars and restaurants. Unlike most small towns, though, about 10 million tourists pass through its nine acres each year.Road to life in the market filled with twists and turns
Thomas, who spent decades working odd jobs in construction, came to the market in the ‘90s. After a leg injury shattered his dream of living a vagabond’s life on the road, he was turned on to the idea of balloon-twisting by a nameless clown in Portland.
Broke and living on street, Thomas moved back and forth between Tacoma and Seattle. He taught himself twisting techniques on the bus, using photocopied pictures out of library books as guides, spending many afternoons at Izzy’s Buffet.
“They kicked me out of the library for making too much noise. So, a fair trade was to blow balloons for an hour at the buffet restaurants and get a meal out of it. That’s where I learned the meaning of being a busker, barter or trader,” recalls Thomas.
Now, back to the little boy with the tall order of a panda-shaped balloon.
Thomas begins to twist, almost begrudgingly at first. His pace quickens, and soon enough he has rendered a few slack balloons into something that more or less resembles a panda. He curtly hands it off to the child.
Therein lies the magic of Twister Thomas’s work: like any performance artist, the charm is in watching him create. Thomas is one of many performers that live and work here. Each has a story.‘It’s almost like being able to travel without moving’
Emery Carl is a lean and tall Kansas native in a long, rust-colored beard and, on brisk days, a Carhartt work jacket. In between drags from a hand-rolled cigarette, he speaks about his place in the world with a contained sense of wonder. Carl has lived and performed in the market since 2002.
“I really wanted to experience a wide variety of people and places in my life,” says Carl. “Being in Pike Place Market, it’s almost like being able to travel without moving.”
Like many market characters, he’s led a life of contrasts; it’s what anchors him here. He was once a worship director and youth pastor at a Seattle church. True to his former profession, he speaks with decided zeal for life and all its perplexities. He also served in the Air Force National Guard for a decade. Among other reasons, these experiences are what led him to become a street performer at Pike Place.
“I’ve always had a real heart and desire to serve God and country. It’s about people and humanity. It’s about serving your community and what you recognize as your creator,” he says. “I found an application that fits my heart right. It’s a big part of the inspiration and drive.”A leap of faith
Carl’s drive is unmistakable. He performs all week long, and he’s hard to miss.
On any given afternoon, he’s usually on the corner of Pike Place and Stewart Street with bells and shells tied to his shoes, two guitars, a harmonica, Rubik’s cubes, and two or three of his signature hula hoops. His show is a literal balancing act — a guitar teeters on his chin while he strums another.
“I play behind my head while spinning in a circle and I’m singing to people. Sometimes I make up lyrics if I’m inspired by what people are wearing,” he says.
But performing on the street, even in a community as obliging as Pike Place Market, isn’t always easy. For Carl, life as a troubadour is a calculated risk, at least financially.
“I traded a faith-based income with the church for a ‘faith-based income’ [as a street performer].” I have no idea how much I’m going to make. Every tip is a miracle, and nobody has to [tip],” he says.
Perhaps for Carl, that’s the draw of life and work in the market: he gets to perform on his home turf every day. Even on a bad day, he’s in a place he loves.
His living arrangement here is more like a dark hideaway than an apartment, but it’s one that accommodates his unconventional lifestyle. For someone as accustomed to the limelight as he is, it’s a quiet refuge after a day’s work, mere steps away from the throngs of market visitors. For Carl, it’s home.
“Home is where the heart is,” he says with a laugh, “and I’ve got a big one.”‘I’m going to have to be dead for them to get me out’
Beth Wasserman loves the market, she says, because it’s like her family: big, happy and dysfunctional. For about a year and a half, she has lived in the Stewart House and sold jewelry on Craft Row at the north end of Pike Place.
For Wasserman, there is no turning back from this lifestyle.
“I’m going to have to be dead for them to get me out of the market,” she says with a straight face.
But why? What is it about life and work here that is so appealing?
The answer is part financial and part philosophical, says Wasserman. The Stewart House remains one of the most inexpensive places to live in downtown Seattle. More importantly, the market is where she feels inspired, and where she says she has found a community of like-minded artists.
“Maybe we have gypsy blood. Maybe we like wandering. Maybe we don’t want to stay in one place or we’ve had a house for 30 years and decided ‘I don’t want this anymore; I want a freer lifestyle,’” she says.For a ghost tour guide, a life among the spirits
Like Thomas and Wasserman, James Pallata lives in the Stewart House, in an haunted apartment. It’s only fitting for Pallata, the lead tour guide of Market Ghost Tours.
“Things will just randomly shift at night. I’ve heard grunting. I’ve heard groaning. I’m the only one there, and it’s not me,” says Pallata.
It’s said that pleasure in the job puts perfection in the work, and for Pallata, a longtime horror fan, being paid to share some of the hair-raising accounts of this historic market is a dream job.
“I get to tell people about ghostly and sometimes horrific things. What more could I ask for?” he says.‘It’s close to utopia’
Like any tour guide, Pallata is a good talker. When he’s not elaborating on the market’s paranormal underbelly, he speaks of Pike Place and his life here with endearment. For him, being a small part of the market’s 107-year history is an honor. He loves what he does, which brings him joy.
“As a representative of the market and as a tour guide, I like to share that joy,” he says.
Pallata is a self-described Army brat who has bounced around the world. At long last, it seems, he’s found a home, even if it is one he shares with spirits. For Pallata, that’s perhaps just part of its charm.
“Every morning I wake up and realize that I’m in Seattle, I’m doing backflips. It’s close to utopia,” he says. “Living in the market is just icing on the cake.”
Seven maximum-security inmates sit in a room with their eyes closed, not making a sound.
Shackles bind their hands and feet, confining them to a metal chair bolted to the ground. A guard stands nearby. Yells and clanks from the hallway stray in through the open door.
This is what meditation class at the Monroe Correctional Complex looks like. The students, murderer and rapists among them, listen as volunteer teacher Cathy Iacobazzi walks them through a practice session.
“What would it be like if you took all of the opinions that you have about yourself and just set them aside for right now?” she says. “Right now, the only truth that you need to know about yourself is: I am the one who is breathing in. I am the one who is breathing out.”
But inner calm doesn’t come easily for most. After a session of 10 rounds of breaths, one inmate asks: “Does practice make it easier? Is it like riding a bicycle?” Another inmate says the lunch he ate prior to class is sitting heavy, stealing his focus.
“It’s a brutal kind of practice,” Iacobazzi tells them. “It takes a lot of work. But the results you get — being able to focus … what a benefit. And you get to choose to do that. It’s your choice. You get to do that. No one can stop you, no matter where you are.”
The students ask questions, express their doubt. But when she asks them to try again for another 10 breaths, they close their eyes and breathe.‘When you’re alone in that cell, the mind tends to wander’
It may not be easy, but the inmates willingly attend the voluntary class. For one, it means another hour away from their small, barren cells where they spend 23 hours of most days, alone. But also enticing is the idea of a free mind.
“When you’re alone in that cell, the mind tends to wander to the future, and that’s where anxiety is. Or the mind wanders to the past, and there are regrets and depression,” says prison psychiatrist Ryan Quirk.
Meditation, says Quirk, helps inmates think in the present moment — “when decisions happen”— instead of dwelling on what was, or what could be.
“They have a better opportunity to act from a decision as opposed to just on impulse,” he says.
The meditation class is part of the prison’s Reintegration and Progression Program (RAPP), which includes aggression control training and lessons on healthy living. Some RAPP classes are recognized by the state as evidenced-based, meaning course attendance has shown a correlation to a lower recidivism rate.
Iacobazzi’s class, first offered last August and now in its second 10-week term, is not yet old enough to apply for evidence-based certification, which requires at least seven years of data on inmates after their release. Still, Monroe officials say the class has shown promise.
Six of the 13 inmates who completed Iacobazzi’s first meditation class have been released from the maximum-security unit to the prison’s general population, says program manager Mike Walker. Those six, he says, are the ones for whom “the light came on” during class.
It happens at a different time for each student, says Iacobazzi.
“I have had the experience, especially last time, of men who likely weren’t interested in what I was teaching become interested, and then really start to pay attention, really start to ask questions,” she says.
The class doesn’t aim to convert inmates into devout believers of the teachings of meditation; the idea, says Iacobazzi, is to gear them with coping tools.
“Right from the beginning, I say, ‘Don’t believe anything I’m telling you unless you can, inside your own consciousness, inside your own being, you can go, ‘A-ha! Oh, that makes sense,’” she says.‘Some of these guys have never said ‘thank you’ before’
Then there are the more subtle lessons the inmates learn in class: in sum, how to socialize. To facilitate a classroom setting, the prison purchased eight special metal chairs that accommodate shackles and allow violent offenders to congregate. The chairs have proven effective at other prisons, including the Washington State Penitentiary.
“It allows for a therapeutic environment while at the same time maintaining the safety and the security of the unit,” says Quirk. “It’s often thought that you have to sacrifice one for the other, but this shows that there can be a balance.”
Sitting in the same room and attending class together teaches these inmates “social skills you and I learned growing up,” says Walker.
“A lot of these folks didn’t have that opportunity. Some of these guys have never said ‘thank you’ before, and that’s one of the social skills that they get to learn,” Walker says.
The classroom setting “makes’em feel more human, too,” says prison superintendent Margaret Gilbert. “You know, you’re not caged up; you’re like anybody else. You’re sitting there, having a conversation.”
The lessons help prepare maximum-security inmates for release back to the prison’s general population, or in some cases, directly to the outside world. They also give prison officials a chance to gauge how inmates might handle life in a less restrictive setting.
“[Before these programs], you didn’t really have an opportunity to see how they were going to interact with other people, and a lot of them would come back,” Gilbert says. “We [now] get to see how they do speaking up in class, interacting with each other and with the officers. That really does give us a good idea of, you know, is this offender going to make it, or do we need to extend the program a little bit longer?”Using tokens to reinforce good behavior
To encourage progress, Walker has devised a reward system of tokens inmates can earn through good behavior — “for not getting an infraction, for participating in class, for doing their practice work, for using their skills on the tier.”
On a typical day, an inmate can earn up to four tokens. On class days, the maximum jumps to six. Collect 50, and the inmate can cash in for a phone call, or, for 50 tokens each, have dinner with other inmates in the same room, albeit shackled to their chairs. Both are “big incentives,” especially those who can’t afford to call home, says Walker.
“It’s working so far,” says Walker of the system. “Some of these guys were getting citations every day, and multiple ones at that. And they’ve had nothing since August.
“Two guys that would not speak to each other four months ago are now having, for all intents and purposes, dinner together. It’s all part of the changes we’re seeing them go through. They’re learning how to be social.”‘It’s learning about myself, learning about others’
Asked just four weeks into the class, the inmates say the course has started to change them in palpable ways.
“What it’s helped me with a lot is a lot of anger issues, fear of the unknown and anxiety. And if I find myself getting angry at the staff or something, I go into meditation, bring it down,” says inmate Rick Danielson. “Isolation brings on a lot more stress than you’d have if you were outside.”
“It’s learning about myself, learning about others, learning about me being in control of a situation. And when I’m not in control of a situation, then I back out instead of putting my hands on somebody,” says Robert Griffin.‘They’re people. They’re suffering’
Most of Iacobazzi’s students have violent pasts, but she prefers not to know their history.
“They’re people,” she says. “They’re suffering. How do we lessen suffering is all I’m trying to get at.”
Her goal is to share with them what she herself has learned from 40 years of studying meditation.
“You can either throw up your hands at the state of the world and feel helpless, or you can do as much as you can to try to make sense of things,” she says, adding she hopes to impart on each inmate at least “one little trick” to help them cope.
“What a thrill it is to me to provide an idea to a person chained in a chair that they can have impact in their life and in their world,” she says. “I’m planting seeds. Even if they don’t fully blossom in the 10 weeks, you know, who knows how far down the road something is going to take root and start to grow?”
Editor’s Note: KPLU does not typically provide audio transcripts of radio stories. However, we’ve made it available in this case in hopes of making the story accessible to all readers. You can also find captioned video of the interview below.
People who are deaf or have hearing loss often find themselves misunderstood, says Patty Liang.
It happened to her once on a plane. A representative from the airline labeled her as disabled, which resulted in someone meeting her at the gate with a wheelchair.
“I don’t need a wheelchair,” Liang said through an American Sign Language interpreter. “I can walk just fine. I can see just fine. Those types of things happen.”
And that’s the point of the Seattle Deaf Film Festival — “to show the variety in our community, and what their experiences are, and how different they are,” said Liang, the festival director.
Take, for example, sign language. It’s used in the films, but the selections come from around the world, so it’s not all American Sign Language.
“We want to learn about other communities and our commonalities that we share,” Liang said. “Everyone is different, but we do have those commonalities, and it’s a good way to support each other.”
The films have audio, and are subtitled as well. There are dramas, documentaries, a category of films for mature audiences as well as family-friendly selections, too. Some of the films deal with serious issues. In the Dutch documentary “Onbeperkt,” we meet 29-year-old Simone who has Usher Syndrome, a rare and incurable genetic disorder that causes both hearing and vision loss.
“Tomorrow I’ll finally get the results of the eye test,” Simone says in Dutch. “I’m a little bit nervous.”
There are comedies, too. “Still Here” is a British comedy about aging Deaf club performers who rally around one of their own who falls ill.
Liang says the film choices are varied because the deaf community is varied.
“Some people identify as deaf,” Liang said. “Some identify as hard of hearing. Some identify as just having a hearing loss. So the community, it’s not all the same. There’s no formal census.”
Still, there are some things that everyone shares, says Liang.
“The deaf community still has feelings, emotions, creativity — the same as everyone else in this world,” she said.
The Seattle Deaf Film Festival runs from April 4 to April 6 at the Northwest Film Forum on Seattle’s Capitol Hill.
American Sign Language interpretation for this story was provided by Cameron Larson.