Gabriel Herrera works on a piece of artwork in the studio at his Lake Stevens home. Herrera said he is in his blue phase as an artist, which is why he uses blue pens to create his art. He started drawing while incarcerated in Monroe Correctional Complex for 10 years. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Gabriel Herrera works on a piece of artwork in the studio at his Lake Stevens home. Herrera said he is in his blue phase as an artist, which is why he uses blue pens to create his art. He started drawing while incarcerated in Monroe Correctional Complex for 10 years. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Prison was art school for this Lake Stevens man

While incarcerated in Monroe for 10 years, Gabriel Herrera used a ballpoint pen to stick out.

LAKE STEVENS — A Bic pen and a prison sentence changed his life.

What’s up with that?

Gabriel Herrera, 40, is trying to make a name for himself as an artist using cheap blue pens.

He started drawing during his 10 years in the Monroe Correctional Complex on a felony conviction for first-degree robbery when he was 26.

“People got hurt and I paid the price for it,” he said of his crime. “I went there as a lost individual.”

Inside his 6-by-9-foot cell, he found purpose through a pen.

“I wanted the officers and inmates to know that I was something different. I wasn’t just a number,” he said.

He traded portraits and tattoo designs for coffee.

The blue-capped stick pens were easy to get in the pen.

“I couldn’t afford anything else,” he said. “I fell in love with the pen because it is so vibrant. You can shade, you can layer.”

Blue is his color of choice.

His artist statement reads: “A pen and paper presented the only window of opportunity where tangible beauty could potentially be conceived.”

It was a mental escape from being behind bars.

“It was my way of traveling,” he said.

Large detailed ink drawings of a piranha and other fish that he drew in prison hang on the wall of the Lake Stevens home he shares with Melody, a pen pal who became his wife, and their 10-month-old daughter, Journey.

“The reason there’s a lot of detail is I had nothing but time to sit there and grind on a drawing,” Herrera said. “I’m a Pisces, so I spent a lot of time doing fish.”

Another Monroe inmate, pen artist Hoyt Crace, became his mentor.

“Hoyt would say, ‘Look at how the sun is hitting the fence. Look at this tree,’” Herrera said. “He taught me how to shade with a ballpoint pen.”

Crace also discovered art while incarcerated. He now has a studio in Tacoma and sells his art nationwide.

Gabriel Herrera works on a piece of ballpoint artwork at his Lake Stevens home. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Gabriel Herrera works on a piece of ballpoint artwork at his Lake Stevens home. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

“It was a great getaway. You could draw something you wanted to see,” Crace said.

Crace was sentenced to life as part of the three-strike law in Washington, but his conviction was overturned and he was released in 2016.

“Gabriel came up with his own type of style,” Crace said. “It’s free flow with a purpose. A way of going about it that’s different, definitely.”

Bev Hardesty was Herrera’s mental health counselor at the end of his sentence in a minimum security unit at the Monroe complex.

“Art allows those behind walls and wire to express themselves in ways which can enrich and alter their lives,” Hardesty said by email. “Gabriel’s art is amazing and has a depth to it that most cannot master. When you gaze upon his art, venture a little closer, for in it you will discover a story.”

Gabriel Herrera stands in his home’s stairwell that is decorated with some of the ballpoint pen artwork he did while incarcerated in Monroe for 10 years. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Gabriel Herrera stands in his home’s stairwell that is decorated with some of the ballpoint pen artwork he did while incarcerated in Monroe for 10 years. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

After he was released from Monroe three years ago, he changed his last name from Burns to Herrera, to honor the surname of his Colombian grandmother. She also dabbled in ballpoint drawings.

Herrera found work in the processing side of the cannabis industry. It led his way back into society.

“The first two years of getting out were brutal, to get acclimated to the world again was very difficult,” Herrera said. “My art was therapy for me.”

At his Lake Stevens home studio, a tin can holds a dozen pens. The carpet has blue ink stains. There are smudges on the wall.

On paper, the ink poses both challenges and possibilities.

A pen drawing by Gabriel Herrera. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

A pen drawing by Gabriel Herrera. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

“It is so unforgiving,” Herrera said. “You learn to turn your mistake into something beautiful. If your ink bleeds you learn to turn it into something that might not be an eyesore.”

Either that or he rips it up and starts over.

Herrera wears disposable gloves when he rolls the pen over paper. He draws under the watchful gaze of his one-eyed cat, Petey. A lamp from prison is a “reminder of where I’m from,” he said.

He could buy better pens. Fancy pens. He likes the simplicity of stick pens and is devising a curriculum to teach others.

“This allows people to create with next to nothing, a paper and a pen,” he said.

His art kit includes sponges, brushes and kneaded erasers.

“I use a lot of different tools. That’s where the curriculum comes in.”

A work in progress of Gabriel Herrera’s artwork. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

A work in progress of Gabriel Herrera’s artwork. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Ink pens allow anyone to make art, from doodles to photo-realistic portraits.

Ballpoints have been used by famous artists and bored school kids since the 1960s, when plastic stick pens flooded the mainstream market.

Centuries before, Rembrandt sketched his ideas in the 1600s with a dip pen and ink.

Turns out there are a lot of aspiring Rembrandts with ink pens on Instagram as well as in galleries these days. “PENtings” is a term coined by a British artist.

In his cell, art was a way for Herrera to hatch away the hours. Now it’s a means to show others how far he has come.

He dreams of putting these pieces of paper in a solo exhibit someday.

Andrea Brown: abrown@heraldnet.com; 425-339-3443. Twitter @reporterbrown.

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