A 2015 documentary from Madison filmmaker Marc Kornblatt tells the story of inmates at a Wisconsin prison who are artists.

And part of that film captured John Gay, now of Jefferson, who was serving his time at Oakhill Correctional Institution and part of a band.

The project included 11 web episodes and a 30-minute documentary that was not only shown at the Madison Public Library that was part of the project, but also at film festivals, where it even won a top prize in Oakland.

“I wasn’t there to tell the story of their transgression,” Kornblatt said. “I was there to show the human side of these people.”

Kornblatt was an elementary school teacher in Madison and decided to take a break from that to focus on filmmaking.

With a writing and journalism background, he set out to tell a story with the film “Artists in Absentia” that followed the inmates through their projects for a day.

The idea of a 10-minute film turned into something much larger when 16 different acts showed up to illustrate what they do.

“My exposure was not with John as a felon, but as an artist,” Kornblatt said.

“John was one of the most sincere and appreciative,” he said. “They all were appreciative.”

Kornblatt said that Gay had the chops for music, but also was thankful for the opportunity.

“He had a very cool ZZ Top look. And a really good guitar player,” he said.

Kornblatt said one of the songs Gay did talked about a gun as part of an anti-violence message. But the prison leaders nixed the song.

The issue of censorship was an essential piece to address in the project, Kornblatt said.

He also was able to go back to the prison and show the film.

The two have kept in touch over the years. When Gay was performing at the fair in Madison this year, they were able to reconnect.

Kornblatt said he would like to do a follow-up to the project. But he recently moved to Israel with his wife.

To see the project and learn more go to artistsinabsentia.com.

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