In the cube he shared with three other inmates, Christopher Message worked every night for nearly a month on an image of the crucifixion of Jesus on a 2-foot-6-inch by 3-foot-4-inch canvas at the Cybulski Community Reintegration Center in Somers, which is part of the Willard-Cybulski Correctional Institution.
After sketching the image, he mixed paints and layered on the black background, flesh tones and white highlights. When he wasn’t satisfied with the results, he repainted sections.
When Message thought he might be done, he leaned the painting against a locker, stepped back and asked the other inmates in the military veterans’ dormitory for their opinion.
“I called my friend Mike and I said, ‘What do you think?’ He said, ‘Stop! Stop! Don’t do anything more to it. Leave it alone. Leave it alone,’” Message recalls.
Before long, others joined in.
“I had 10-15 inmates crammed into my cube, all staring at it. Everybody was in silence just staring at it,” he says. Their collective conclusion? Leave it alone. It’s done. “I was like, ‘All right. I’m done. I’m stopping,’” Message says.
In retrospect, he is surprised that so many people, including the corrections officers, expressed so much interest in the creative process and in the final results. He’s equally pleased by the mood of the piece – dramatic, yet intimate – just as he had envisioned. Message’s mastery over the subject is also a happy outcome, considering he has never had any formal art training.
“Out in the world, before prison, I couldn’t even draw a stick figure,” he admits.
Now Message hopes to use his budding artistic talent to share his affection for Jesus, Mary and the saints with others when he is released from the reintegration center, which prepares offenders for release into the community. Five of his paintings have already been shown as part of an exhibit at Lichtenstein Center for the Arts in Pittsfield, Mass.
A need for portable art
Message, 41, credits his newfound passion for painting to a religious art therapy program developed by Deacon Michael Torres, liaison for Catholic prison chaplains for the Archdiocese of Hartford. Deacon Torres is also the Catholic chaplain/facilitator at Willard-Cybulski Correctional Institution in Enfield and Somers and at Carl Robinson Correctional Institution in Enfield.
As chaplain of Catholic services, he prepares men who are interested in receiving the sacraments and reconnects many to the teachings of the catechism, which he says is the best guide for a healthier journey when they return back to society.
“I think it redirects them back to the core of what they learned as kids, the teachings and doctrine of the faith, and the love of God and neighbor,” Deacon Torres says. His work also reinforces “how important it is to have that blanket of spirituality as part of the reintegration, so they can utilize that when they get back home.”
In addition, Deacon Torres serves as a deacon at St. Martha Parish in Enfield.
Deacon Torres began the art program in the Cybulski Community Reintegration Center in 2016 after the staff told him to remove religious items from the nondescript space that was used for multidenominational worship and religious programs. The room needed to be cleared after each use to prepare for the other religious faiths.
“That struck me,” he says. If we can’t put things up permanently, he thought, maybe we can create something portable. He had seen evidence of artistic talent in the housing units, he says, and wanted to direct it toward the worship space.
So Deacon Torres invited inmates to participate in an art therapy class for one hour every Tuesday. Five Catholic men signed on, including Message. The class was held in the worship space using art supplies left over from an old art program at the prison, plus new supplies donated by St. Catherine of Siena Parish in West Simsbury.
Deacon Torres left it to the men to draw and paint whatever they wished.
“I’ll be honest with you, I have no art skills whatsoever,” Deacon Torres said. “But it attracted me, what they’re able to express in their artwork. We have conversations about our relationship with God and how can we express that in works of art. That’s pretty much the core of the program.”
There was no instructor, but the men quickly began to collaborate, teaching each other. Some had perfected sketching, while others excelled at mixing paints. “So they were sharing their gifts,” Deacon Torres recalls. “It was really special.”
Finding his style
“Going to the chapel and doing the art program, it’s a relaxing environment and nice and quiet,” Message says. “You can use your imagination and put all your emotions into the paintings. It kind of becomes a form of meditation and prayer at the same time.”
His first painting was of Jesus with the crown of thorns on an 11-by-14 1/2-inch canvas. “We didn’t have the skin tone paint yet, so I did it in all dramatic black and gray,” he recalls.
In time, Deacon Torres asked the men to contribute paintings that could serve as the Stations of the Cross.
“It was challenging doing the Stations of the Cross and trying to capture the mood of each station onto a small canvas,” Message said. One of his contributions was the fifth station, in which Simon of Cyrene helps Jesus to carry the cross. “They met face to face. I did a zoom-in.”
Father Robert Villa, pastor of St. Martha Parish in Enfield, visited the Cybulski center and other prisons each week to celebrate Mass and offer confession. He also requested religious art.
“I contemplated getting a crucifix for the wall,” he says of Cybulski, “but then I heard of Message and that he was experimenting with sacred art.”
Father Villa asked Message to create a larger artwork to place above the altar, and selected the painting “Christ Crucified” by Spanish painter Diego Velázquez as inspiration for the new work. The inmate agreed to the assignment.
“When they ordered the large canvas, I was pretty scared,” Message admits. “I thought, ‘I can hardly paint on these small canvasses and now I’m supposed to do it on this big one.’ It was very intimidating.”
A big fan of the Italian Renaissance painter Caravaggio, Message ordered two books about his life and works and picked up the technique of chiaroscuro, the use of high-contrast light and shadow for dramatic effect.
Many artists have painted Jesus on the cross, Message notes, but he wanted to make the work his own personal expression. “It’s completely my own mood, shading, color,” he says. “I even added the teardrops coming down his face.”
Message began the piece in class and obtained permission from authorities at the facility to continue working on it in his dorm. Now that it’s completed, the painting is securely housed in the chaplain’s office until Message hangs it above the altar before each Mass.
“Being his first time, he did a phenomenal job,” Father Villa says. “It definitely enhances the [Mass] experience for the guys.”
Coming full circle
Message says he had no previous training in the fine arts, but his life story suggests an artistic nature.
Born in Hartford, he was adopted at 1½ and raised in Fairfield, where he attended Mass every week with his adoptive family. He played piano, and even played the organ in church from the age of 9 through his years at a Jesuit high school.
Message joined the Navy for a brief stint, then was gainfully employed as a barber – a profession that combines technical skill and creative talent. He also worked as an emergency medical technician in Bridgeport, where he says he witnessed violence and tragedy.
He drifted away from the Church. His anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder got out of hand. In his attempt to control them, he says, he began to abuse alcohol just to sleep, and later abused prescription medications and cocaine.
His issues escalated until, in his words, he “went off the deep end” and committed a series of arsons in quick succession in Fairfield County. According to news accounts in the Connecticut Post, a firefighter was injured fighting one of the fires and Message was sentenced to 10 years in prison followed by five years probation. He has already served 6 1/2 years.
“The Catholic Church in prison has definitely pulled me back to where I needed to be and helped me to rebuild my faith,” he says today. “I take full responsibility for what I did, and I’m ashamed, embarrassed, humiliated. I never broke the law ever before.
“I plan to seek professional help if any issues arise,” he adds, “and never turn to drugs and alcohol again. I have my family and friends and faith in [God and] the Catholic Church for structure and support when I get out.”
Faith in a future
During his incarceration, Message not only found his way back to the faith, he also discovered his personal vocation.
As part of his participation in the religious art therapy program, Message read Thomas Merton’s book No Man Is an Island. In the book, Message says, the American theologian and mystic suggested that everyone has his or her specific vocation.
“I kind of believe my vocation is to be sharing the love of God, Mary and the saints with the world through beautiful paintings and beautiful music,” he says.
Once Message has completed his time at Cybulski, he plans to take formal painting classes and also hopes to do more with his music.
During his early years at MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution, he composed a series of eight classical piano sonatas, titled “Sonatas for the Saints.” He says he has 80 pages of handwritten sheet music.
“I would love to be able to put on some kind of concerts in churches out in the world,” Message says, “and maybe have my paintings in the background while the music is being played.”
Message has other dreams. He is enrolled in a certificate program for human services management, which is offered on-site by Asnuntuck Community College of Enfield, and he hopes to find work in that field someday.
In the meantime, he has given a few paintings away as gifts to his girlfriend, mother and Archbishop Leonard P. Blair. Of his mother, he says, “Seeing my artwork, it gives her comfort knowing that I’m OK and doing what I’m doing in prison.”
Deacon Torres says chaplains can always use the help of more prison ministry volunteers to assist with various prayer activities, programs and sacramental preparation. Spanish-speaking volunteers also are needed.
For more information on volunteering at a correctional institution in Enfield, Somers, Niantic, Cheshire or New Haven, contact Deacon Torres at Michael.Torres@ct.gov or at 860.763.6599.