Practicing art…even in prison

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Northeast artist James Bailey said his father was a thief and his grandfather was a brawler. When they once passed each other at a prison’s entrance his father going in and his grandfather getting out a local paper did a story on it, joking that the grandfather had handed off his toothbrush to his son.

Bailey’s father, John Bailey (1908-1991) who became one of the most skilled wood engravers in Minnesota served four prison terms in the 1930s and 1940s, twice at St. Cloud, once at Stillwater, and once at Michigan City Prison in Illinois.

“The first time he went to prison he was 18 years old and it was during the Depression,” James Bailey said. “He and another man broke into a store. My dad was hungry. He went for the food and his partner went for the money. My dad got five years.”

The elder Bailey put his incarceration time to good use, by honing his drawing and wood engraving skills in prison. He worked in St. Cloud Prison’s print shop, and illustrated stories (mostly with his wood cuts) for the prison newspaper. According to writer Robert Crump, who wrote biographical profiles of some of the inmates, Bailey made his own tools and contributed artwork regularly to “The Pillar” newspaper.

James Bailey said his father worked hard to educate himself in prison. When he was in Michigan City Prison in Illinois, he initially was put in a cell across from members of John Dillinger’s gang. But because he was such a talented escape artist, jailers moved him to death row, where security was tighter. Bailey managed to turn that to his advantage, however. “They wouldn’t let regular prisoners have books, but the death row prisoners could get them,” James Bailey said. “My father asked them to get him books, so he could study artists, and writers such as Shakespeare.”

After ending up in St. Cloud a second time, Bailey was transferred to Stillwater Prison in 1940. When a reporter interviewed him on July 15, 1943, for “The Mirror,” Stillwater Prison’s newspaper, he explained the wood engraving process. Engraving on wood blocks is done in reverse, he noted, and it is a three-stage process, each stage (or “state,” as they are called) showing more detail.

The engraver works from dark to light, he added, unlike etching, where the artist works from light to dark. The first state is mostly dark, with only a few white lines; it acts as a guideline.

In the second state, the piece takes on its form, so the engraver can “work up a mental picture of what the finished print should look like.” The third state “discloses” the finished print, he added. Bailey usually worked with end grain maple, finished to a glass-like surface. He preferred boxwood, but it was usually unavailable in larger sizes.

At the start of World War II prisoners were expected to help with the war effort. Bailey produced many wood engravings that called for people to buy war bonds or donate blood.

“My father was a cartoonist as well as an artist,” James Bailey said. “He was also a jokester. He used to zing the barber at Stillwater Prison with cartoons about him. They were funny, not mean.” (According to Crump, John Bailey attended grade school with Walter Lantz, creator of the Woody Woodpecker cartoon character. “They competed in drawing cartoons on the blackboard to illustrate the subjects being taught; but outside of this early venture into cartooning, John received no formal art training,” Crump wrote.)

The outside world began to notice John Bailey’s talent in the mid-1940s. The Minneapolis Institute of Arts showed some of his work, and in 1944, the 34th Annual Fine Arts Exhibition of the Minnesota State Fair accepted two of his engravings, “The Battle Cry” and “The Studio.” The latter piece won second place in the print category. Meanwhile, the Supervisor of Institution Libraries, Mildren Methven, worked to promote his work, managing to get some of his pieces shown in art galleries in Georgia and some Western states.

In the mid-1940s, Bailey attracted an influential patron. Minnesota Governor Edward Thye’s wife Myrtle took an interest in him and his artwork. She advocated for Bailey’s pardon, which the governor granted–in 1944.

“My father got a job in the book binding department of the University of Minnesota when he got out,” James Bailey said. “He did portraits, leather tooling and wood engravings. He also worked for several printers, including Jenson Printing and Holden Printing.”

He married Annabelle Mihelich in 1945 and they settled in Northeast Minneapolis. In 1947, Bailey illustrated a Christmas book published by North Central Publishing Company.

In the 1950s, he opened his own bindery shop in St. Paul at Jackson and Kellogg streets, putting leather bindings on books. “He fixed a lot of lawyers’ books,” James Bailey said. “When I was a kid, we lived at 407 Broadway in Northeast. He had a print shop in the basement and I made business cards for the neighborhood. I didn’t know he had been in prison until I was 15 years old.”

That fact explained one thing to the teenager: their constant stream of out-of-the ordinary company. “We had a lot of characters coming around all the time. My dad knew everybody in the prisons; he had a good friend named Bud, who was one of the best safecrackers in Minneapolis. They had been cellmates in St. Cloud.”

Bailey said that after his father died, he visited both Stillwater and St. Cloud prisons to try and get some of his father’s artwork. “I saw the engravings, and they told me they would let me borrow them and print them, but I couldn’t have them. I had to acquire a special kind of press to print them, a Vandercook. After I got it, I contacted the prison, only to learn that they’d had an auction and sold everything in the print shop. I probably lost 30 to 40 of my father’s wood engravings. I’ve been trying to find out who bought them, but they haven’t been real helpful on that.”

Bailey said he had better luck at St. Cloud Prison, where they allowed him to go through the archives. Prisoners helped him run off prints of his father’s work, “using the same press my dad had worked on,” he added. “They also let me take one wood engraving with me. I had the pick of the litter. I took pictures and I met the warden. A month after that, they shut down the prison newspaper.”

James Bailey owns J.B. Galleries, (www.jbgalleries.com), 1711 University Avenue NE. He has been an antiques dealer and artist for more than 30 years. His work includes pencil drawings, etchings, sculptures and limited edition prints. He attended Atelier Lack fine art school in Minneapolis and studied life drawing with renowned artist Richard Lack.

Like his father, he has exhibited work at the Minneapolis Institute of Art and the Minnesota State Fair. He has won three awards in the annual Minneapolis Aquatennial sculpture contest.