Nearly ten years ago, the jail chaplain in Leelanau County challenged the inmates to participate in a drawing contest. It was Christmas and Leelanau County Deputy Diane Speas remembers the results of that first contest.
“We looked at them and found them just gorgeous, and decided to make them into cards," she recalls.
When Deputy Speas saw the talent, she wondered about how she could bring more art into the jail. What began as a one-time drawing contest, has now become a regular part of jail life for some inmates in Leelanau County. The jail now offers the chance to not only sketch, but also paint, knit, quilt, bead, and even tie fish flies.
Inmates can spend up to eight hours a week in the art room. It’s not a master class. Speas herself simply enjoys the arts as a personal hobby. But through the years, she’s figured out when to give guidance and encouragement.
“I used to get stuck a lot when I started my first painting,” says Jake Schaub, an inmate who’s been in the Leelanau County Jail for about six weeks. “She would pick up on it from the other side of the room it seemed. And she’d tell me all the time, ‘Just relax.’ And it really helped a lot. And it works. It was pretty cool that she was able to pick up on that you know.”
Before arriving, Schaub had little arts experience. Now, he’s working on his third acrylic painting. It’s a landscape featuring a few deer feeding in a foggy grassland with the sun rising in the background. He says he’s surprised by how far he’s come.
“I painted houses and hated it,” he says. “I vowed to never touch a paint brush again, but Ms. Speas got it back out of me.”
Schaub doesn’t view his new found love for art as a career opportunity. He thinks that would take the fun out of it. He does plan to use the skills he’s learned in jail once he leaves.
“Cause it’s an amazing release and it’s a good feeling,” says Schaub. “The self-gratification that you get from making something that looks decent and people tell you, is something in its own. It’s something I’ll take with me for sure, and utilize it.”
Diane Speas is approaching her 30th year as a correctional officer. And she’s convinced that art is more than just an activity to combat jailhouse boredom. She believes it’s a chance to learn valuable life lessons.
“I’ve got several people that call me over the years and say, 'Ms. Speas, I’m still doing good. I’m not in trouble.' And so it does have an effect on people,” says Speas. “So, if it takes learning art to figure out how to do things a little bit differently to get things done in life and to complete them, that’s a good thing.”
Speas says when the time does come for her to retire, she plans to return to the Leelanau County Jail - as a volunteer.