“I was always an artist. When my mother wrote my name to help me learn it, I was more interested in the different colors than the letters. Although I’ve had various jobs, they’ve all centered around art or design.
“I even taught art in a women’s prison. There was a program called Arts and Corrections and I really felt like that was an important thing to do. They gave me keys that were long and heavy, and I had to go down a long corridor of chain link fence topped with electric wires.
“I had a pregnant woman in my class who gave birth while she was incarcerated, and you’re not allowed to keep your baby there. So she would get pictures of her son, and she was so depressed. She said, ‘Miss Judy. I just don’t know what to do. I miss him so much.’
“I asked her to show me a picture of her son, and she brought one to me. I said, ‘Why don’t you paint him?’ and she said, ‘Oh, well, I can’t paint.’ And I said, ‘Wait a minute, how do you know you can’t paint? Have you done this before? This is why you’re here. Try it!’ I gave her colored pencils and paper.
“The next week I came to teach, she brought out the most beautiful portrait she had done of her son. I told her it was phenomenal. She says, ‘You want to hear something exciting? I already have a commission to do a portrait of one of the guards’ kids, from a photo.’ So while the other inmates were doing jobs that were paying sixteen cents an hour, she supported herself with these portraits.
“When this woman was about to be released, she came to me. She said her life changed because of what she found out about herself through art. And I said, ‘Now you have to promise me that when you’re home and you’re tempted to do something to make somebody else happy, that you put yourself and your baby first and you always rely on your art. Because you’re that good.’
“That was also a pivotal moment in my life, because I knew I had made a difference. Through art.”
Judy DeRosa is Chota Cherokee and a life-long artist in many mediums. Her work can be seen at Oakhurst’s Gallery Row and will be featured in Sierra Art Trails, October 5th-7th.
This is Us is a series of local profiles with first-person stories, written in a way we can get to know the people in our community on a little deeper level. Click here more information about this series.