MONDAY, March 11 — Guillermo Delgado thought he would make a great Catholic priest, but after two years in seminary he was kicked out with a pink slip that read “No potential for priesthood.”
Now, after a career in academia at Michigan State University, Delgado has found a congregation of his own.
In conjunction with the Residential College for Arts and Humanities at MSU, Delgado showcases his art and the work of his prison students spanning six facilities in Michigan with new his exhibit “Rituals to Seed Clouds with Crystals.” It contains zines, poems, drawings, paintings and photos of Delgado’s prison poetry program.
The exhibit also features seven yoga mats for attendees to practice flows on, as Delgado worked concurrently as a yoga instructor behind bars.
Delgado’s position at MSU is an academic specialist in community and socially engaged arts, but most of his incarcerated students call him “Mr. G.”
Though he’s never been a prisoner, Delgado’s experience with correctional facilities started in childhood. He grew up in Chicago, only a few blocks away from the Cook County Jail — the largest single-site jail in the U.S., which comprises 6,000 prisoners within a 96-acre facility.
“That was my bedroom view for a few years. It is massive concrete with tall walls and gun towers,” Delgado said. “It is interesting to me that I grew up looking at this as a kid, and now I teach in prisons.”
Delgado moved to Lansing to pursue graduate school at MSU. While there, he volunteered at Peckham Inc., a nonprofit community vocational rehabilitation organization. Teaching an art class, one student stood out from the others as a trained painter.
“She told me she learned how to paint in prison by licking Skittles to paint with,” Delgado said. “She could paint these beautiful portraits and landscapes with Skittles. She became so popular that she would even get commissions for holiday and birthday cards.”
Guillermo Delgado's centerpiece "The Rainmakers," features hearts, stars and crowns — all forbidden items to draw in juvenile detention centers.
Word spread of Delgado’s work at Peckham, and one day he got a call from an officer at the Ingham County Youth Center. She wanted him to come in to teach an art class for incarcerated youth.
“I went in and she took me cell to cell. Each child would come out, show me a sketchbook or recite poetry to me,” Delgado said. “The beautiful work I heard and saw was unforgettable; it still is.”
Delgado said he stopped into Stober’s Bar afterward and sat at the counter trying to comprehend the amount of young creativity locked behind bars. He wondered what he could do about it.
The answer he came up with? Zines. Thus giving birth to the Prison Poetry Zine Project. Working with the RCAH, Delgado would take MSU students into his prison classes to help create zines with drawings, paintings, poetry and writing.
“A lot of them didn’t go to school. I would use the zine and artmaking component to get them into writing and it worked.”
But not all participants thought a poetry project was groundbreaking.
“There was this one guy at Michigan Reformatory in Ionia who was grouchy and really skeptical,” Delgado said. “He said, ‘Mr. G, I don’t know if this is for me. I don't know why I’m here. I don't even write poetry. It seems interesting, but I don’t know if I can do that.’”
Six sessions changed him, Delgado said.
“He said to me, ‘I remember I told you I don't write and know anything about poetry. You changed my live and now I’m writing poetry all the time.’”
Working in these programs can take a mental toll, however.
“People call it compassion fatigue,” Delgado said. “I hear a lot of stories in depressing situations. I’ve worked with a child who is eight years old. I have a son that age, and it is hard not to think about your kids.”
After work, Delgado began drawing mandalas with a word in his mind from the day. These became the basis for his side of the exhibit.
“I would draw these as a way to center, relax and reflect constructively. I made a whole bunch, and they turned into five paintings,” he said.
The centerpiece of the exhibit is entitled “The Rainmakers,” a collection of Delgado’s mandalas.
“‘The Rainmakers’ is a joke about the juvenile detention center because, I kid you not, every time I go there, the weather is crappy and depressing. Every time it is an oppressive sort of drizzle.”
Included in the centerpiece are hearts, crowns and stars — all forbidden items to draw in juvenile detention.
“I hope people get a feel for what this work is about. I think too often we throw people away to prison and it impacts the quality of our lives as well,” Delgado said. “We are how we treat people. Who do you want living next to you when they get out: a poet or a gangbanger?”
“Rituals to Seed Clouds with Crystals”
Feb. 28 to March 31
Monday-Thursday noon to 3 p.m.,
Friday noon to 3 p.m., 5 to 8 p.m.
RCAH Lookout! Art Gallery
362 Bogue St., East Lansing, MI