Visionary Educator Pioneers Alexandria Inmate Art Program

In Z Hood: Inspiration MatterZ

Kelli Schollard-Sincock, founder of Inspiration Matterz and co-curator of the (No) Comfort Zone exhibit at Del Ray Artisans in April 2019. (Courtesy photo)

By Kelly MacConomy

ALEXANDRIA,VA – Reston artist and educator Kelli Schollard-Sincock is more than creatively inspired. She’s compassionately inspired. Two years ago, Kelli began Inspiration Matterz, a program that brings art instruction to the incarcerated and those transitioning while in halfway housing.

Five years ago, Kelli attended a lecture at the Lorton Workhouse Art Center with a friend. Former corrections officers presented attendees with a collection of artwork that detainees at the jail had bartered for commissary credit privileges. Kelli was, she says, “blown away by the quality of the artwork.” And Kelli’s friend said, “Kelli! You should do this. Teach art in jails!” Thus the seed was planted to found a nonprofit that brings therapeutic art instruction to the less fortunate.

It took some years to kick-start Inspiration Matterz. Kelli was working on her second fine arts degree in printmaking from George Mason University, having already earned one in interdisciplinary media with an emphasis on metalsmithing and sculpture from the University of Washington. With the second degree achieved, Kelli contacted the Alexandria Detention Center. Sheriff Dana Lawhorne, well known for enhancing opportunities for those in incarceration, was more than receptive to the idea.

White pencil on black paper drawing by an Inspiration Matterz student at the Alexandria Detention Center ~ N.A.C. (Students’ work is identified by initials to protect identities.) (Photo courtesy of Kelli Sincock)

With Sheriff Lawhorne’s enthusiastic come-on-over approval, Kelli was given safety training and ushered to a classroom to use as a studio. Classes are capped at 20 men, with one guard outside – not inside – the room. Kelli, a petite, attractive woman, was left to conduct art lessons with all manner of tools available, potentially to be fashioned into weapons. Undaunted by sharpened pencils and an incredulous chorus of, “We can’t draw!”, Kelli didn’t accept “can’t” as an excuse to fail.

Inspiration Matterz has proved to be so popular and successful that there’s a waiting list for Kelli’s art class. Students unable to take the class with certain other inmates or those low on the waiting list receive instruction from Inspiration Matterz alumni. Much as the Lorton prison officers bartered inmate drawings for commissary credit, so do today’s detainees trade their art for cigarettes, playing cards, even paper and safe art supplies.

The Sheriff’s Department has exhibited artwork from the detention center at Art on the Avenue for two years, and last July, the Torpedo Factory staged a display of Kelli’s students’ work. The exhibit, supported by Del Day Artisans, and titled Off the Grid: Creating Change Through Art Instruction and Inspiration, demonstrated the breadth of previously untapped talent that inmates discovered, and in some cases rediscovered, within themselves via Kelli’s dedication to nurturing their expressive creativity.

Inspiration Matterz student artwork on exhibit at the Torpedo Factory last summer. (Photo courtesy of The Torpedo Factory and Del Ray Artisans)

Inspiration Matterz has since expanded to include inmates at the Fairfax County Detention Center facility, as well as Alexandria’s Friends of Guest House, a transitional housing environment for women leaving incarceration. Kelli was named the 2018 Volunteer of the Year by Fairfax Sheriff Stacey Kincaid and received the Thomas J. Long Foundation Grant. Supporters donating to the program include Cooley LLP Legal Services; Del Ray Artisans; Cathy Fisher of Fisher & Kong, LLP; Leslie Mounaime, Director of the Target Gallery in the Torpedo Factory Art Center; and the Reston Buy Nothing Group.

Since developing her art curriculum for the incarcerated instructional program, Kelli has taught well over 300 students. With the positive experience and overwhelming support by the correctional/legal community, as well as local art venues for Inspiration Matterz, Kelli hopes to expand in 2019 to include juvenile students.

Kelli Sincock is confident that she can teach anybody to draw. She prefers not to know why her students are in jail. The love of art is an equalizer. There’s no judgement in her class except for the occasional critique by a fellow art student. “The greatest reward for me is when a student walks in apologizing that all they can draw are stick figures,” she says. “This is the best kind of student, because I get to mold them without their having a preconceived notion of how to draw. Art opens a world to them they didn’t know existed.” A brava and standing ovation to Kelli Schollard-Sincock for teaching us all that art not only heals, it inspires hope.