Arts: Helping Alexandria inmates find the beauty within

Artwork from a student in Kelli Schollard-Sincock's art program. Student works will be on display at "Off the Grid" at the Torpedo Factory (Courtesy photo)

By Jordan Wright

When forensic sketch artist Kelli Schollard-Sincock was thinking about how she could make an impact in her community, she recalled a casual comment a friend made during a lecture the two women attended.

Kelli Schollard-Sincock (Courtesy photo)

The talk, held in Lorton, featured prisoners’ art the guards had collected, either through barter or outright payment, and she was impressed by the caliber of the work. Her friend said, “You should do that,” referring to teaching art within the prisons. The offhand remark didn’t register until she read a report that President Donald Trump’s administration planned to cut funding for the arts. She saw it as a call to action.

She started by asking Lieutenant Marybeth Plaskus at the Alexandria Detention Center if the center had a need for a prison arts program. Plaskus gave her the nod, and the first class took place in February 2017.

“We started from scratch with one classroom that was immediately filled with about 25 male students. That was such positive reinforcement for me. They were always thankful I was there,” she said.

Since its inception, the program has been hugely popular and has grown rapidly, expanding to offer classes for women.

After her success working in Alexandria’s prison system, she reached out to Fairfax County Detention Center and started another arts program there in August 2017. She now teaches
there twice a week, but due to a lack of space is no longer teaching in Alexandria. There is still more demand, though, Schollard-Sincock said. Her goal is to hire more teachers to fill the many requests for additional classes. 

Initially, the challenge was to find art supplies, which are not funded by state or local counties. She had to get creative. Fortunately, that’s what artists do. She discovered the “Buy Nothing Project,” an online sharing organization for free items that operates locally through Facebook.

There, she posted a call for art supplies and had such a positive response that she spent four weeks driving all over the county to gather an immense amount of materials. 

She had local help too. Del Ray Artisans heard about her classes and members thought

Artwork from one of Schollard-Sincock’s students (Courtesy photo)

they could assist. Fundraising Director Joe T. Franklin Jr. and Acting President Drew Cariaso wanted to learn about her program and had her give a talk to their members. Member artists were so impressed with her outreach program that they held a fundraiser, including an in-house drive for materials.

“People have really taken ownership of the program,” she said.

The organization has been instrumental in helping her set up nonprofit “Inspiration Matterz,” which will allow her to expand the program and enlist additional art teachers. She credits William G. Truesdale Adult Detention Center Program Directors Lenora Murphy and Latanya Ervin with keeping her program going, as well as husband Austin and son Gregory for support and encouragement. Schollard-Sincock chooses subjects that are executed in a variety of mediums.

“Men and women respond totally differently to the programs. My intention is to teach tangible skills, not just doing crafts. My very first student was an older gentleman. He told me, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing here. The best you’re going to get out of me are stick figures,’” she recalled.

The program, however, clicked for the student, Robert McCrickard, when he started

Artwork from student Robert McCrickard (Courtesy photo)

painting. He now creates both paintings and photorealistic drawings.

“He is like the case study of why I’m doing what I’m doing,” Schollard-Sincock said.

Over the past year, she has seen a huge change in their attitudes. 

“It’s empowering to learn that you have developed a skill. The biggest thing in these classes is getting them to trust me and not give up,” she said.

Recently, Leslie Montaigne, director of the Target Gallery at the Torpedo Factory Art Center, offered her the gallery for a show. She will host the show this Friday, “Off the Grid,” featuring 49 framed drawings from her prison art program.

Del Ray Artisans will host the opening night reception for “Off The Grid” in the Torpedo Factory’s Site 2 Community Gallery from 7 to 9 p.m. The show runs through Aug. 31.
Kelli Schollard-Sincock’s work can be found on her website, www.kellisincock.

Jordan Wright writes about food, spirits, travel, theatre and culture. Visit her website at or email her at [email protected]