Eleanor Emery already knows what you think of her.
She's never had the pleasure of introducing herself, but she's well aware that her daily attire and, more strikingly, her address at the State Prison for Women in Goffstown, paint a certain vivid picture to the average viewer.
Which makes it that much more fitting that she and seven other prisoners are doing their best to change that perception with a paintbrush in their hands.
Under the guidance of volunteer and Concord resident Annmarie Russo, the group is painting a bench to be donated to the upcoming Friends Program Auction. Russo handpicked the participants from a one-stroke painting class she teaches at the prison, but provided only general guidelines for the project.
The concept and the work, from start to finish, belongs to the inmates.
"It's very important, because everyone has a perception about us without ever meeting us," Emery, who has two years left of a 10-year sentence for theft by unauthorized taking, said. "To do something and have them see us in a different light is rewarding."
The scenery at the prison admittedly features little variety for those who spend their days and nights there. They sleepwalk through the same narrow hallways, stare at the same sterile walls, navigate the same mundane routine.
Personal space, always at a premium, has become even more scarce with overcrowding pushing the prison over its capacity. So the chance to get lost in a landscape of their own creation was understandably appealing.
Nicole Belonga, who has taken both Russo's beginning and advanced class, was certainly eager.
"It's doing something that is going to help a good organization. We're kind of limited here as to what we can do, and this kind of gets your mind out of the everyday (routine of) being in prison," Belonga, who is 3 ½ years deep into a 15-to-30-year sentence for manslaughter, said. "We do the same thing every day, and this gets your mind off of it."
Painting became a way for Russo to get her mind off a loss in her own family, and volunteering at the prison soon did the same. A retired physical therapist with no previous art experience, Russo said she picked up the technique of one-stroke painting as "just a hobby," but she's found the volunteer work at the prison deeply rewarding over the last four years.
"It's wonderful. It's the highlight of my week to go there," Russo, who has had many of the eight participants in her class for two or three years, said. "I have no idea why they are there (in prison), I only care that they are here (emotionally). At the least, it's a stress reliever for everybody and something they can have success with. I told them, do what you know. And they know quite a bit."
The hobby/craft room has been buzzing with activity since Russo first delivered the bench more than a week ago. It was sanded and primed before Russo left the premises that day, and has since been speckled with the first signs of painted nature, sunflowers and grass.
Allison Burgess will contribute her specialty, the hydrangea, to the project. The completed bench will feature a wildflower garden with butterflies in front of a blue sky, she said, and each participant will add their own signature flower.
"We're all good at one particular flower, so we all do what we're best at," Burgess, who has served 2 ½ years of a 3-7 year sentence for charges of possession and forgery, said. "I think it's a great project."
But not one without its challenges. Simply sitting down to plan the project proved something of a chore, because, as Karen Molina said, "it's difficult to get eight women to agree about anything."
Some - like Molina and Jeannie Dube - had previous art experience. Molina, who is serving an 18-year sentence for aggravated manslaughter, said she used to paint watercolors, and Dube said she had art classes throughout high school and college.
Others - like Emery, Belonga and Ivonne Hernandez - had never even dabbled.
"I could draw stick figures," Belonga joked. "I didn't know how talented I was until I came to prison."
Out of the diverse backgrounds came a unified goal, though, and working together has proven as rewarding as it has been trying.
"We're sharing the most precious of what we have," Dube, who is serving a 2-to-4 year sentence for arson, reckless conduct and criminal mischief, said. "We had a lot of different ideas, but that's the challenge. Some had more ideas, some had less ideas, but we came up with something beautiful."
Community involvement is nothing new to these women. They have sewn blankets for children, made clothes for those in need after floods and other natural disasters and donated dozens of other items to various charities and organizations over the years. For many, it's often the most tangible way to stay connected to the outside world.
"You don't just sit here like a bump on a log. You stay active." Hernandez, who is two years into prison terms for second-degree murder, second-degree assault and reckless conduct that will last at least 16 more, said. "There's a lot more to do than you think."
Added Dube: "Everybody should get involved in the community. Just because you are incarcerated doesn't mean you don't have that opportunity. People here jump right in and all want to help." (next page »)