Minn. inmates use art to honor fallen Guardsmen

Inmates from the Minnesota Correctional Facility-St. Cloud worked on paintings to honor three Minnesota National Guardsmen who died in a helicopter crash


By Reid Forgrave
Star Tribune

ST. CLOUD, Minn. — When Kao Xiong was growing up in public housing in St. Paul, he didn't have many opportunities. He saw himself as an outcast, and identified with the X-Men character Wolverine. Xiong would escape by grabbing pencils and a drawing pad and sketching his own animé, or comic book art, or portraits.

Xiong tried so hard to fit in that he made a lot of bad decisions, and in his 20s, when he moved to another part of town, things went downhill.

Jason Ricci, left, and Jeremy Degeier with a painting honoring Chief Warrant Officer 2 James A. Rogers Jr., who died in a helicopter crash in December. (Photo/Zachary Dwyer of St. Cloud Times via TNS)
Jason Ricci, left, and Jeremy Degeier with a painting honoring Chief Warrant Officer 2 James A. Rogers Jr., who died in a helicopter crash in December. (Photo/Zachary Dwyer of St. Cloud Times via TNS)

"That's when I progressed to using drugs," he said. "That was my downfall. I didn't know anybody, and I got kind of lonely."

That's how he found himself imprisoned at Minnesota Correctional Facility-St. Cloud last summer. When he heard there was an art program, he signed up. It was a way to get out of his cell, but it turned into much more than that. Xiong was drawing again and painting with acrylics. He picked photographs from nature magazines and painted wildlife portraits, including the one that he's most proud of, a detailed painting of blue-faced snow monkeys. He became an art tutor for other inmates.

So when a request came to the St. Cloud facility for commissioned paintings to honor the three Minnesota National Guardsmen who died in a helicopter crash near St. Cloud in December, Xiong jumped at the chance.

"It was a good feeling, just to give back," the 30-year-old said. "It takes a lot of your mind off the fact you're behind bars. It opens up new career interests. It gives you something to look forward to when you get out, to take this new talent toward something that's not a bad thing."

The prison facility hosted an unveiling last week of three U.S. flag-themed paintings that honored the Guardsmen who perished: Chief Warrant Officer 2 James A. Rogers Jr., 28; Chief Warrant Officer 2 Charles P. Nord, 30; and Sgt. Kort M. Plantenberg, 28.

At the ceremony, Xiong stood in front of the cameras along with two other inmate artists who worked on the paintings: Jason Ricci, 29, and Sergio Zapata, 35. Also attending were the warden and an assistant adjutant general from the Minnesota National Guard.

"It mirrors the outpouring of support from the public ever since that event occurred," said Brig. Gen. Lowell Kruse of the Minnesota National Guard. "Giving these prisoners a chance to express that patriotism is healthy for them. The helicopters from our St. Cloud flight facility fly over or near the prison constantly. They recognized the service of our soldiers."

Prison Warden Eddie Miles said the December crash reverberated among the staffers and inmates at the facility. It was only natural for the prison's long-standing art program to support the National Guard, he said, and could only be a confidence boost for the inmates to have their artwork valued. "Giving the guys something positive to feel about themselves can reduce victims in the long run," he said.

There are programs within the Department of Corrections that teach technical skills to inmates — a print shop and a garment shop, a masonry program and a barber program — but more than that, it's about creating good work habits. "There's a fair amount of people in prison who have never held real jobs," said Lisa Wojcik, director of MINNCOR.

One benefit is the program encourages good behavior. Inmates with a discipline violation can be sent to a segregation unit, where they cannot attend programs like this. A more important benefit is the hope inmates can gain.

"It allows our offenders an opportunity to help repay some of the harm that's caused by crime in our community," said Lisa Jorgenson, a case worker at the St. Cloud prison. "It's restorative to them, and it gives them an opportunity to express themselves. Some of these guys couldn't draw as much as a stick figure before they got into the program."

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©2020 the Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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