- Independent Journalism From Today's Armenia
 December 12 , 2003 

For More Than Art's Sake: Women and juveniles learn craft, not crime, in prison program

Artists . . .

A few teenage boys and women sit together in a room where a yellow light shines on their attempts at creating art. Their hands are buried in clay, and when the task is finished they will admire their work and marvel that they could become artists.

This is the Abovyan Prison for Women and Juveniles. And for the past two years, the non governmental organization (NGO) Trtu has turned the lockup into a sort of art colony for criminals.

"I think that the main reason for becoming a criminal is lack of education, and we are trying to reveal prisoners' own essence using beauty," says Temik Khalapyan, head of Trtu. "It is inconceivable when a woman sentenced for a homicide, creates wonderful pieces with clay."

Since January of 2002 more than 120 imprisoned teenagers and women (the majority of them have already been set free) have taken part in various Trtu events.

They have staged a play, have created "Edj" prison monthly newspaper, have studied national songs, dancing, fine arts, knitting.

Since February of this year the prisoners have been studying pottery, which, according to organizers, was one of the most successful projects.

On the 19th of November their clay pieces were exhibited in Yerevan National Art Museum. The authors of the pieces were also presented there.

Eighteen year old Khachik is in prison for stealing. He joined the pottery class several months ago.

"To evade working in the 'zone' (Russian slang for prison), I would go and sit by the door of the pottery classroom and would try to kill time," Khachik says. "But Khalapyan got angry with me one day. So I was pissed off; I sat down, made a plate with clay and sculptured a church inside the plate, and I saw that it looked good."

Khachik says he liked pottery very much, not only as art, but also as a way to earn money.

"I will be released next month, but I would like to learn more about pottery, so that I could earn money outside," says Khachik. "For instance, if I sell my plate for 500 drams (about 90 cents), I will be able to buy a kilogram of clay, and will make five similar pieces. This is a good business."

Prison art on display . . .

According to 45 year old potter Barsegh Harutyunyan, the teenagers attend the class with a great enthusiasm.

"But there is a big problem," says master Barsegh. "It is insufficient for pottery teaching to have classes only twice a week, especially when many of the prisoners, who have short sentences, are being released from the prison not having enough time to learn the main finesse of the art."

Now Trtu tries to find some means to found a similar class outside the prison, where their former pupils could attend.

"After being released they call me and ask to continue the studies," says Khalapyan. "If we ignore these wishes, it is very likely that the former prisoners will start to commit crime again."

Trtu has been sponsored by the Open Society Institute (, but that sponsorship ends in February.

"The Institute will not finance the same project twice, and it will be very difficult to tell the prisoners that they will not be able to continue studying pottery any longer. There are no other financial sources yet," says Khalapyan.

The staff of the prison has also become close with Trtu, and considers them to be full members of the work collective.

"If during Trtu's work, at least one prisoner gives up the criminal world, it will be a great victory," says head of the administration, colonel of justice Yura Jamalyan. "And I am convinced that they have already succeeded in having several prisoners take the right route in life."

According to Jamalyan, the number of prisoners has considerably diminished recently. Today the number of prisoners does not exceed 100, only seven of which are teenage boys.

Twenty-nine year old Anush Grigoryan has five years left on a sentence of seven years and four months for murder.

Anush attends pottery classes, and says she is sculpting her future there.

"I am impatiently waiting for freedom to combine my ideas with what I've learned in prison, and to create individual pieces from clay," Anush says.

She is sure that one day she will serve guests from coffee cups and desert bowls made with her own hands.

For more information about Trtu prison art call (374 1) 42.16.57 or write to To make a contribution to ArmeniaNow's HyeSanta project, click here.


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