Making art at Gatesville: Peg Runnels teaches Exploring Creativity

Painter, photographer, mixed media artist, and Truth Be Told supporter Peg Runnels describes her experience teaching an Exploring Creativity class to Gatesville inmates:

Although I’d volunteered at Lockhart many times, when Peggy Lamb asked me to do art with the Gatesville inmates for Exploring Creativity, I said yes. Immediately I felt apprehension. This was for the sex offender unit: Would I be able to be with them without judgment? Could I even like them?

As the time approached, I grew anxious. What if I in my ignorance said or did something offensive? What might happen? Not knowing anything about them caused me fear.

I wondered what I might have to offer to inspire their art. The phrase came to me, What Do You Dare to Dream? I let that play in my mind, wondering how to make that come alive. And then What Do I Dare to Dream? became the next question. One thing I’m afraid of is dancing in front of others, so I decided that is what I would do.

Arriving at Gatesville, I was nearly quaking. When it was time, Peggy had the women form a circle, introduced me, and without saying a word I began to dance in the circle, a dance of fear and nervousness. I looked each woman in the eye. Their eyes showed confusion as they glanced at each other. What is she doing, they seemed to say. Then as my vulnerability dance began to change into acceptance, I saw their faces soften and grow warm. We had connection.

Describing why I danced for them — to dare to dream and to face my fears — I told them to consider what they might dare to dream and to bring into reality. I suggested they paint that question. Eagerly they jumped in and silently made paintings and collage.

Facing my fears helped them face theirs.

At the end we formed another circle, this time with each woman holding her art in front of her. In silence, we looked around at each unique work of art, amazed at the quality and depth.

Then an amazing thing happened. I said, We only have 15 minutes before cleanup so there isn’t time for everyone to speak, but if you don’t talk too much a few of you can share about your art. One woman quickly jumped in and said a couple of things about hers and as she walked around inside the circle showing it, someone else began telling about her piece, and while she was showing another began to speak. This pattern continued, and every woman who wanted to speak got her turn. Only one out of the 27 declined. This was a group-think solution that worked better than anything I could have planned.

In this morning at the prison, I came away deeply satisfied and fulfilled. I’m sure I learned more than anyone there.

Peg’s Bio

I have always been introspective. A high school English teacher assigned an autobiography paper and while other students groaned, I secretly rejoiced. We were to include our personal credo, and I remember writing values that are still true for me today:

  • I agree with Socrates, An unexamined life is not worth living;
  • I choose to seek and find beauty in simple everyday things;
  • I seek to be authentic.

Peg Runnels maskMy masks reflect those values.

I was 28 when my mom died. Afterwards I longed to read anything that might tell me more about her — diaries, journals, letters — but there was nothing. My children will know me, I resolved, and began keeping personal journals and finding expression in art, writing, photography, and now personal masks. The masks tell my life.  Each one has her story; each one is a part of me. My masks are part of a larger plan to know myself and to share who I am.

A native of Dallas, I married and moved to Austin. My husband Jim went to UT and I stayed home with children. At 42, my children grown, I attended St. Edward’s University. For several years I photographed homes for builders, pursued art photography, and had a few photo exhibits. Now I lead creativity retreats and workshops where we write, create art, or make masks.

My art pursuits are very diverse. For example, in 2004, this is what I did:  curated and exhibited in a group nature photography show at Mayfield Park; exhibited my photography series titled Home at the Carr America building; created a piece named Mardi Bra  for Firehouse Gallery’s breast cancer awareness show in Fort Worth; led several weekend creativity retreats; gave two talks on Staying True to Yourself at Lockhart Women’s Prison including showing masks; had a month-long solo exhibit at Tarrytown Baptist Church, including artist’s talk; exhibited at The Driskill Hotel with art opening celebration; and exhibited at Norwood Towers (Seventh and Lavaca) for six weeks.

All of the things I do support my life values: to examine my life and live it consciously; to seek and show beauty; to live as authentically as I can. I try to be the change I hope for the world.


    • Thanks, Jeanne. Your words are especially meaningful to me since you are also making huge impacts on women’s (and men’s) lives.


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