Individuals who enroll in postsecondary education programs are 48% less likely to be reincarcerated than their peers who do not, according to a 2018 meta-analysis published in the Journal of Experimental Criminology. Alexander Alvarez ’24MFA and Jim Wysolmierski ’24MFA, who each graduated with a master’s in fine art this past weekend, understand the impact of education on one’s life. They also share the experiences of those incarcerated.

Inspired by desire to give back, this summer, Alvarez and Wysolmierski will teach art classes to prisoners in the Florida Prison Education Project (FPEP), a UCF initiative founded in 2017 that seeks to offer a high-quality undergraduate education to people incarcerated in Central Florida. From October 2022 to September 2023, UCF faculty volunteers for FPEP taught 12 face-to-face classes in three prisons to 180 incarcerated students.

“FPEP is thrilled to have Alex and Jim join the team,” says Keri Watson, executive director of the Florida Prison Education Project and assistant director of UCF’s School of Visual Arts and Design. “Our incarcerated students are eager for more classes and are always excited to learn more about visual art.”

For Alvarez, beginning his new role as FPEP program coordinator is an incredible opportunity to work with and help incarcerated people. Growing up in Springfield, Massachusetts, he witnessed and experienced the injustices that impact impoverished communities, such as police brutality, the drug epidemic and systemic racism.

As a troubled youth, he was in and out of the juvenile justice system. At 17, he eventually spent three months in an adult correctional center, which he says “scared [him] straight.”

“When I was arrested and ultimately locked up for a short amount of time, that definitely broadened my perspective on how your rights can be taken away in a second,” Alvarez says. “The dark side of people’s personalities is escalated when you’re in there and are treated the way that you are. It’s a life-changing experience.”

Changing Life for the Better

After incarceration, Alvarez was focused on changing his life’s trajectory for the better. He would later become a truck driver for 21 years, traveling across the lower 48 states and seeing various inner cities like the one he grew up in. As a kid, Alvarez always drew and read comic books such as X-Men, Spawn and the Fantastic Four. Now an adult, Alvarez wanted to use art to share his story and use it as a vehicle to start conversations and create change within his community and ones like his.

In 2019, Alvarez started enrolled at UCF. There were multiple options for schools to attend, but he wanted somewhere completely new to have a fresh start. UCF’s campus and the people there were appealing, but it was the quality of the work created in the art program that attracted him the most.“[When I saw] all the student work … in the hallways when I took the tour, I was like ‘Wow, this is pretty awesome here,’ ” Alvarez says. “That’s what drew me to Orlando and UCF in general. Compared to everywhere else that I went, UCF really stuck out.”

During his time at UCF, Alvarez has created works with a theme of redemption. The Best Things in Life Aren’t for Me is a work featuring a body bag filled with tar pigment and trash gathered from gun violence sites. Another work, Head Space, contains a series of sculpted heads and painted boxes with a sculpture of a mother’s head and a rosary in the middle. The work is representative of the impact Alvarez’s mom had on him as he aspired for a better life.

“I like to have the mother figure as the hub that grounds you within this whole world of chaos and disorder,” Alvarez says. “It’s the guiding light.”

At UCF, Alvarez found guiding influences for his future as an artist through former FPEP program coordinator Jason Fronczek ’16 and Watson. Seeing the impact Fronczek and Watson made through FPEP, sparked Alvarez’s interest to get involved with the community more. While Alvarez was still guarded about his personal story, reading more about FPEP and encouragement from Watson has led him to join the project’s team to help incarcerated people.

A Story of Transformation

Wysolmierski’s journey to UCF began in the Sunshine State, where he was living in Gainesville as part of a punk band that toured the world. Through his time in the band, he developed acute alcoholism and was hospitalized on multiple occasions. He was incarcerated a few times for alcohol-related offenses, with his longest sentence being six months. At one point, Wysolmierski was even living behind a Taco Bell dumpster. It was at that point  he wanted to change his life and started turning things around.

He entered Alcoholics Anonymous, and in 2020 he earned a bachelor’s degree in studio art from USF, furthering an art background that used in making T-shirts and record covers for the band. When he looked at schools for his master’s degree, he says he wanted to stay close to his parents, as he was taking care of his mother with dementia and his father with cancer. Caring for his parents was the beginning of Wysolmierski’s desire to use adverse situations as a chance to give back, he says.

Transformation is a key theme in Wysolmierski’s art, whether it’s transforming materials to represent a theme or showing the story of someone transforming from negative experiences to making a positive impact. An example is a piece featuring a blanket made from hospital and club wristbands.

Another artwork is a pile of HVAC tubes filled with material representing bile and corrosive material. The work symbolizes alcohol’s effect on the intestines, and was inspired by Hurricane Ian, which damaged the HVAC units in Wysolmierski’s Orlando apartment complex and forced Wysolmierski to evacuate in 2022.

“When I was able to move back into my apartment, a work crew was installing new units and removing the temporary ones. In this process, there were piles and piles of AC ducts all over the place. I thought, ‘Those look like intestines. That reminds me of what I did to my body,’ ” Wysolmierski says. “I also thought of the temporary comfort that the units were providing, and I thought of the temporary comfort that alcohol used to provide me. There was a connection between the pain of my alcoholism and the adversity of being displaced from my complex. It all tied together for me, and I really, I’m happy with that work.”

It was during that time that faculty and staff at UCF impacted Wysolmierski outside of the classroom, with those in the art program providing a place for him to stay.

“I felt this sense of family and that was the biggest positive experience that UCF gave me,” Wysolmierski says. “It was a sense of community that everybody was there for me as I am for them.”

Wysolmierski has also given back at UCF through teaching, first as a graduate teaching assistant and then as a graduate teaching associate. As he came upon the last final of his beginning sculpture and 3D-design class last week, he thought about the students and what he gets out of teaching.

“I get this bond and being able to see them grow throughout the semester is so cool,” he says. “I love it when I’m like, ‘They get it.’ I just think that to myself, ‘Look at what they did in the first day to what they’ve done now.’ It’s amazing.”

The Possibility of Change

As Wysolmierski prepares to teach at FPEP, he says he hopes the students there get some sort of release. In his thesis work, he wrote about how sometimes verbal depictions don’t come across as well as making art about it. As an artist, it’s easier for Wysolmierski to express himself through sculpture, and he wants to help other artists in the program to express themselves through their mediums.

Alvarez says he wants to inspire those he teaches in the program to find purpose and use art as a vehicle to teach them the possibility of change, fostering within them the passion to pursue a better life. He also wants to use his experience to provide perspective and inspire.

“I definitely want to encourage the prisoners to change their mindset,” Alvarez says. “I know that right now they’re confined physically, but mentally, you can open your whole world up to all kinds of possibilities. I really want to encourage them to create their own world, talk about their own culture, situation, identity, to help inspire others as well.”