How art helps these women ‘escape’ Virginia prison

GOOCHLAND COUNTY, Va. -- Like anxious children waiting for Christmas morning, time has a way of dragging a group of giddy students in Goochland. At this adult learning center, six friends are expanding their horizons through color and canvas. Vivian Moore never thought twice about painting for pleasure.

By picking up a brush, Vivian discovered a hidden talent in an unlikely place. Easels unfold twice a month at Virginia Correctional Center for Women in Goochland. The group “Art for the Journey” pairs seasoned artists with novice painters like Vivian.

"For me it is an opportunity of a lifetime," Vivian said. "I never imagined me using real paint. Real brushes. Real canvases in a prison."

Painting, no matter your skill, can transform lives through creative expression, according to volunteer Jamie Wigginton.

"We just thought we want to take this to other people who normally don’t have this opportunity," Jamie said. “The fun part is seeing how they progress. No matter where they start out. They are end up in a place when they finish."

At this facility, nothing is abstract.

Offenders are serving time for crimes ranging DUI to drugs to murder. But the only watchful eye in this studio comes from trained professionals. Prison supervisors said hard time softens with each stroke.

"This is a new beginning. They’re learning new things. They’re meeting new people," Chief of Housing and Programs Robinette Clark said.

Professional artist John Heirholzer, president of the non-profit, said watching self-confidence soar is a thing of beauty.

"It's our pleasure... [it] gives us joy to come and do this,” Heirholzer said. "When I bring the art to other people, I find that more fulfilling than making the art myself."

Lexie Mendez embraces the opportunity to inject some zest into an otherwise monotonous existence behind bars.

"We’ve been talking about art class since Monday," Lexie said. "It can be a little drab you know? Everything in here is gray, blue or orange!"

Vivian Moore could not be more grateful for the chance and guidance from the dedicated volunteers.

Inmate Vivian Moore

Inmate Vivian Moore

"It makes me want to be successful in life,” she said. “When I leave, I don’t want to leave. I just want to stay in here.”

The woman who barely knew how to draw stick figures now creates her masterpiece inside and out.

“I just have to work with it and be a little patient,” Vivian said. “You can’t rush fine art.”

In Art for the Journey, the subjects range from landscapes to wildlife, but all paintings share a theme of independence.

“When I’m in here, it is like a great escape,” Vivian said. “I don’t think about being behind bars. You know. My mind is clear and it's free.”

Art for the Journey also works with low-income seniors, people living with physical and mental disabilities, and young students during the summer. Click here if you would like to volunteer.

Greg McQuade features local heroes in a weekly “Heroes Among Us” segment. Watch Greg’s reports Thursdays on CBS News at 6 or here on WTVR.com. If you would like to nominate someone to be featured on “Heroes Among Us,” click here to email heroes@wtvr.com.