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Dakota County Jail: Making art in unlikely places

This is a story of hope, and it takes place in jail -- the Dakota County Jail.

The character in the story who introduces the other lead characters is commander Blair Anderson, followed by other jail staff.

The main focus of this story, however, is inmates Michael Vance, Joel Foote and Carl Asfeld. They are the artists creating an incredible charcoal mural on one of the walls of the building's gym.

Anderson oversees a facility that houses 15,000 inmates a year at a cost of more than $100 a day per inmate. Eventually, they will be released.

"We don't want them to come back here," Anderson said.

This artwork and what it has done for these three people, is part of the outreach program that will help to ensure the number of repeat offenders decreases. It can result in other benefits, too: better lives for the inmates and decreased costs to the jail and the taxpayers.

The sketches that inspired the final mural drawing were collected when the jail staff completed a "shakedown" of the cell blocks. When Anderson saw the drawings, he had an idea - gym wall, artwork, and inmates.

"Our gym is used for recreation, church services and other activities," he said. "It is the one place that all the inmates go to; this would allow some inmates to gain exposure for their art."

He asked the supervisor to go back and collect the drawings and ask others to submit and make a determination on the final sketch.

"This is a facility filled with talent," Anderson said. "But it is a also a place where people have made bad choices.

"If we can get them to use their God-given talents, maybe we won't see them here again," he said.

Enter the artists

Vance and Foote are probably an unlikely team in any other capacity. They do, however, share the bond of being in the jail together. They are open about being in other, similar facilities.

This time, the Dakota County Jail is different, both said.

"Since we started this (less than a week ago), I have received more praise and encouragement than I have in my life," Vance said. "This time it is different; everything is."

He gives a lot of credit to Anderson and his staff.

It is not about him, Anderson said. It is ultimately up to the inmates.

Both Vance and Foote, he said, have that "God-given" talent. Vance has been a tattoo artist since he was 13 -- he has a number of them on his body. He hopes to someday have an art studio.

Foote loves to sketch and has a folder full of those he has completed during his stay in this jail. Some of the sketches he adds to paper, and he creates his own stationery. His signature on the sketch is a footprint - what else would it be?

"I was an artist before, but I didn't apply myself," Foote said. "Now, I have that push. The praise and encouragement are really helping me."

So is Asfeld, who downplays his importance. He refers to himself as a helper, someone who hands Foote and Vance tools when they are on the scaffold.

But he also outlines the sketches on the mural, which is an important part of the project, Vance said.

"That really helps us," he said. "It saves us a lot of time and work."

Their work

The mural sketch, "Break the Chains That Bind You," is one of hope and is being completed almost entirely in charcoal. The colors of red and blue are in a flag above the sketches of the Minneapolis and St. Paul skylines, the eagle, the praying hands and the inmate. The "1" in the "1st National Bank building in the St. Paul skyline will be done in red.

Neither Vance nor Foote has worked in charcoal before, but one of the jail staff recommended using it. They are happy with the results. The only drawback to their work, they say, is occasional sore shoulders, and standing for long periods of time. Their hands carry traces of the charcoal, and they have to be careful not to place them on the untouched wall space.

Foote, Vance and Asfeld work well together, which is kind of a surprise, they admit.

"It was click, click, click," Vance said. "When you think of men working together, you don't get that."

"We are just enjoying this," Foote said.

As they worked together last Friday morning, members of the jail staff occasionally stopped to watch and smile at the progress and give their approval.

It was another sign of hope.