Oral Histories

Interview of Ellen Davidson

Project manager of the Prison Arts Project and director of William James Association.
Arts in Corrections: Interviews with Participants in California Department of Corrections' Institutional Arts Program
Community History
UCLA and University of California History
UCLA History: Events and Projects
Biographical Note:
Project manager of the Prison Arts Project and director of William James Association.
Aoki, Kyoko
Davidson, Ellen
Persons Present:
Davidson and Kyoko.
Place Conducted:
Davidson's home in Santa Cruz, California.
Supporting Documents:
Records relating to the interview are located in the office of the UCLA Center for Oral History Research.
Interviewer Background and Preparation:
The interview was conducted by Kyoko Aoki; MLIS, UCLA.
Processing of Interview:
The interviewer prepared a timed log of the audio recording of the interview. Davidson was given the opportunity to review the log in order to supply missing or misspelled names and to verify the accuracy of the content but made no changes.
1 hr. 14 min.
Regents of the University of California, UCLA Library.
Series Statement:
The interviews in the series Arts in Corrections: Interviews with Participants in California Department of Corrections' Institutional Arts Program document the stories of formerly incarcerated artists, professional artists, and administrators who participated in the Arts-in-Corrections program. Arts-in-Corrections was a California Department of Corrections program that placed professional artists in correctional institutions across the state to provide incarcerated men and women instruction in a variety of artistic media, including the visual arts, theater, musical performance, creative writing, and poetry. The program spanned three decades from 1979 to 2010. The oral history interviews were conducted as part of the interviewer's master's thesis research and then donated to the Center for Oral History Research. Archival materials related to the Arts-in-Corrections program are available at the UCLA University Archives and the UCLA Ethnomusicology Archive.
Born in Durham, NC—Father, Page Smith’s background and position as provost of the first college of University of California, Santa Cruz — Marriage and separation -- Works for the telephone company after finishing high school -- Reconciles with husband and has children in 1969 and 1972 -- Goes back to school and receives a general bachelor’s degree in an external degree program — Arts an integral part of life -- Mother, Eloise Smith, goes off for weeks at a time to paint -- Mother encourages all of her children to do art – How parents met — Mother starts an art gallery at UCSC and holds weekend arts workshops for students —Father a historian —Father starts the William James Association (WJA) as a community education project — WJA sponsors Prison Arts Project (PAP) — Jerry Brown invites mother sends to become the director of the California Arts Council —Mother establishes a three-year pilot project at Vacaville Prison for a fine arts program run by practicing artists— Davidson starts a co-op preschool at a local elementary school, begins work on community gardens, and begins working as an administrative assistant for a county supervisor —Begins doing record keeping and grant writing for PAP – PAP becomes institutionalized by Henry Mello and Sam Farr with a $300,000 budget in 1980— The state of corrections in the late 1970s and the program in its initial years — The structure of Arts-in-Corrections (AIC) during its first years as it expanded to six then twelve prisons — Susan Hill of Artsreach applies for a Southern California contract — Community Resource Manager position within prisons — WJA’s process of vetting artists to teach inside prisons — Receives National Endowment for the Arts grants to administer programs in federal prisons — Becomes a Project Manager as the pilot program shifts to a program with a budget and begins to grow -- AIC budget grows to $1million — Legislative authority over Department of Corrections — Companion program in the California Youth Authority and John Cocoros, a Texas corrections employee who advocates for arts program in Youth Authority — WJA prison program is called the Prison Arts Project, and the state program adopted the name Arts-in-Corrections -- AIC holds a panel in Sacramento that establishes an Artist Facilitator in each prison — PAP does presentations in communities to find new artists -- Artsreach and WJA take turns developing an annual conference —Diversity, sexual harassment prevention, cultural diversity, and other types of trainings/discussions for artists — Describes the panel by which artists are selected — WJA administers a survey with the inmates to get feedback on artists — All artists are contract artists, not employees — Parents’ deaths —Begins to feel complicit in prison system getting bigger; leaves WJA in March of 1997 -- Susan Hill from Artsreach also declines to apply for an AIC grant — Buys a painting created by a clerk for AIC in Soledad and ends up marrying him -- Gains an inside perspective on AIC — Dana Lomax is hired at WJA – Life after retiring from WJA — Young people’s need for creative expression -- When someone who is incarcerated makes the decision that their future will be different than their past, there need to be outlets for them to pursue -- Importance of the arts for schools and arts for prisoners.