The art teacher is telling his students to scribble. He doesn’t want to see any straight lines.
“I knew I had to counter my incarceration with something positive. Education would be the ticket to get my life back on track.”
— Jason Fronczek ’16
“A straight line isn’t true to life,” says Jason Fronczek ’16. “Make scribbles. Give them time. They’ll eventually look beautiful and real.”
Fronczek’s students have names. But if you saw their clothes and where class is being held, you wouldn’t ask for their names. You’d just call them prisoners. The teacher has a different perspective, though.
“I’ve been in your shoes,” he tells the students incarcerated at the Central Florida Reception Center in Orlando run by the Florida Department of Corrections.
He has their attention.
“And I’m about to finish my master’s degree at UCF.”
And with that, their eyes are open wide — just as eyes should be.
Fronczek is still trying to process this himself. He was released from prison 10 years ago but is still releasing himself from the trap of his own story. Photography has freed him to see the world in a whole different way. And teaching art through the Florida Prison Education Project (FPEP) is his way of giving others hope while they’re still incarcerated.
“Jason is an amazing person,” says Keri Watson, associate professor of art history at UCF and director of FPEP. “I don’t see him as a ‘former felon.’ He’s a father, a student, an artist. To see what he’s gone through — he’s an illustration of success.”
Fronczek tells his students to keep those eyes open wide. Because if he can see himself in their shoes, maybe they can also see themselves in his.
Finding a Positive Perspective
Fronczek doesn’t avoid the uncomfortable truth. “I was convicted, imprisoned.” Just get it out of the way so the talk can go from small to very large. “I want people to realize that my mistakes are not my identity. I’ve moved forward. We should all move forward.”
“A straight line isn’t true to life. Make scribbles. Give them time. They’ll eventually look beautiful and real.”
To do that, he’ll first give the details you’re wondering about. He went to jail in August 2006 for burglarizing a neighbor’s home. Sentenced to five years, he ended up serving four years and three months.
Fronczek could easily have chosen to become bitter or jaded. He chose instead to read — one or two books every day. The longer books, like etymological dictionaries, took three days. By the time he got out in 2010, he’d consumed about 2,000 books.
“I knew I had to counter my incarceration with something positive,” says Fronczek. “Education would be the ticket to get my life back on track.”
The Bible made such an impact that he first thought about going to seminary school. But shortly after his release, the mother of a friend gave Fronczek a used camera. It brought back memories — good memories. He wanted to learn more.
So less than a year after leaving prison, Fronczek enrolled at Valencia College and through the DirectConnect to UCF program earned bachelor’s degrees in visual arts and emerging media management and studio art. The two majors piqued his interest in the power of art, so in 2016 he applied to the emerging media MFA program. A year later he reapplied and was accepted.
Fronczek absorbed concepts and applied them to his own photography. He took a few of Watson’s courses because something at the core of her teaching connected with him, he says. She also told him the hard truth about his thesis.
“It was too general, too focused on research,” she says. “For art to be universally understood, you need to start with your own story.”
Although Fronczek is willing to share his story in casual conversation, he also knows how hard it is to understand. It takes perspective.
And that’s just it. Art is perspective, right?
“Bringing personal experiences into my thesis makes all the difference,” he says, “because I want a way to influence attitudes and behaviors.”
Personal perspective is especially true with his photography, which can be traced back to the point-and-shoot camera he bought for $10 as a kid, the Nikon he got from his brother in a sweet trade, and the gift from his friend’s mother after his incarceration. Perspective allows him to marvel through his lenses at things the rest of us might ignore. Chaos in leaves. Empty bicycle racks at Walmart. The construction on I-4, of all places.
“I look at the juxtaposition of the pylons and the angles of unfinished bridges,” he says. “It all has something interesting to offer.”
Sharing His Story
Even with his bachelor’s degrees and a master’s nearly in hand, Fronczek finds it challenging to find a place to rent or to score job interviews. It’s the box he has to check on the applications. Ever been convicted of a felony?
“Art has a way of showing the potential you never realized you had. Look at me.”
But even the box has opened up a something marvelous. There were things Watson and Fronczek didn’t know about each other through their first few semesters together at UCF. He didn’t know she’d taught art to prisoners in Alabama and in 2018 launched the FPEP. She didn’t know where he’d been, either.
“I could sense there was something special Jason had to offer,” she says, “but I didn’t know he’d been incarcerated until I saw the box he had to check when applying for our master’s program. That’s when I asked him to teach in the FPEP program.”
Fronczek is more likely to say he spends three hours a day “encouraging” incarcerated students rather than teaching.
“Art has a way of showing the potential you never realized you had,” he says. “Look at me.”
He says he still hasn’t grasped the gravity of this: Jason Fronczek, MFA. But that isn’t his identity, either. His life is a bunch of scribbles, like the world around us. That’s the message of his story: When he started to find beauty in a world of scribbles, it found beauty in him, too.