Prison was an art school for this man from Lake Stevens

LAKE STEVENS — A Bic pen and a prison sentence changed his life.

What’s up with that?

Gabriel Herrera, 40, is trying to make a name for himself as an artist using cheap blue pens.

He began drawing during his 10 years in the Monroe Correctional Complex on a first-degree felony robbery conviction at the age of 26.

“People got hurt and I paid the price,” he said of his crime. “I went there as a lost individual.”

Inside his 6ft by 9ft cell, he found purpose through a pen.

“I wanted officers and inmates to know that I was something different. I wasn’t just a number,” he said.

He traded portraits and tattoo designs for coffee.

Blue cap ballpoint pens were easy to put in the pen.

“I couldn’t afford anything else,” he says. “I fell in love with the pen because it’s so vibrant. You can shade, you can layer.

Blue is his favorite color.

Her artist statement reads: “A pen and paper presented the only window of opportunity where tangible beauty could potentially be crafted.”

It was a mental escape to be behind bars.

“It was my way of traveling,” he said.

Large, detailed ink drawings of a piranha and other fish he drew in prison hang on the wall of the Lake Stevens home he shares with Melody, a pen pal now his wife, and their daughter of 10 months, Journey.

“The reason there’s a lot of detail is that I only had time to sit down and polish a design,” Herrera said. “I’m a Pisces, so I’ve spent a lot of time fishing.”

Another Monroe inmate, cartoonist Hoyt Crace, became his mentor.

“Hoyt said, ‘Look how the sun hits the fence. Look at that tree,” Herrera said. “He taught me how to shade with a ballpoint pen.”

Crace also discovered art while incarcerated. He now has a studio in Tacoma and sells his art nationwide.

Gabriel Herrera works on a ballpoint pen artwork in his Lake Stevens home. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

“It was a great getaway. You could draw anything you wanted to see,” Crace said.

Crace was sentenced to life under Washington’s three-strike law, but his conviction was overturned and he was released in 2016.

“Gabriel came up with his own type of style,” Crace said. “It’s a free flow with a purpose. A way of approaching things that is different, certainly.

Bev Hardesty was Herrera’s mental health counselor at the end of her sentence in a minimum-security unit at the Monroe Complex.

“Art empowers those who hide behind walls and wires to express themselves in ways that enrich and change their lives,” Hardesty said via email. “Gabriel’s art is incredible and has a depth that most cannot master. When you contemplate his art, venture a little closer, because you will discover a story there.

Gabriel Herrera stands in the stairwell of his home which is decorated with some of the ballpoint pen artwork he made while incarcerated in Monroe for 10 years.  (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Gabriel Herrera stands in the stairwell of his home which is decorated with some of the ballpoint pen artwork he made while incarcerated in Monroe for 10 years. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

After being released from Monroe three years ago, he changed his last name from Burns to Herrera, to honor his Colombian grandmother’s last name. She also dabbled in ballpoint pen drawing.

Herrera has found work transforming the cannabis industry. It brought him back into society.

“The first two years of being out were brutal, reacclimating to the world was very difficult,” Herrera said. “My art was therapy for me.”

In his home studio in Lake Stevens, a tin can contains a dozen pens. The carpet has blue ink stains. There are stains on the wall.

On paper, ink presents both challenges and opportunities.

A pen drawing by Gabriel Herrera.  (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

A pen drawing by Gabriel Herrera. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

“It’s so ruthless,” Herrera said. “You learn to turn your mistake into something beautiful. If your ink bleeds, you learn how to turn it into something that might not be an eyesore.

Either that or he tears it up and starts over.

Herrera wears disposable gloves as he rolls the pen across paper. He draws under the watchful eye of his one-eyed cat, Petey. A prison lamp is a “reminder of where I come from,” he says.

He could buy better pens. Fancy pens. He loves the simplicity of ballpoint pens and designs a program to teach others.

“It allows people to create with next to nothing, paper and pen,” he said.

Her art kit includes sponges, brushes and kneaded erasers.

“I use a lot of different tools. This is where the curriculum comes in.”

A work in progress of the work of Gabriel Herrera.  (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

A work in progress of the work of Gabriel Herrera. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Ink pens allow anyone to make art, from doodles to photorealistic portraits.

Ballpoint pens have been used by famous artists and bored school children since the 1960s when plastic ballpoint pens flooded the mainstream market.

Centuries before, Rembrandt had sketched out his ideas in the 1600s with pen and ink.

Turns out there are plenty of Rembrandt wannabes with ink pens on Instagram as well as in galleries these days. “PENtings” is a term coined by a British artist.

In his cell, art was for Herrera a way to bring the hours to life. Now it’s a way to show others how far you’ve come.

He dreams of putting these pieces of paper in a personal exhibition one day.

Andrea Brown: [email protected]; 425-339-3443. Twitter @reporterbrown.

Gallery


Kayleen C. Rice