Inside & Out Exhibition Spotlight: Michelle Repiso and Treacy Ziegler

Justice Arts Coalition (JAC) is excited to announce our inaugural online exhibition: Inside & Out: Photorealists to Minimalists.

Amid growing calls for transformative justice and the abolition of our country’s criminal legal system, artists can play a unique role in envisioning and implementing new ways of approaching conflict, building community, and fostering healing. By changing narratives and evoking compassion, artists, particularly those directly impacted by the system, can inspire action towards systemic change.

With so many art shows canceled in the past year, we recognize the critical importance of continuing to provide a platform for artists in and around the carceral system. JAC’s virtual exhibition allows us to carry on this mission and reach wider audiences across the country.

From abstract paintings to computer-animated video units and everything in between, Inside & Out features over 70 pieces of art from over 30 artists. The collection reflects the broad range of styles, media, and subject matter that inspire systems-impacted and allied artists: pointillism paintings vividly and hauntingly render the unreality of the “American Dream” and photo series capture the radical and creative repurposing of everyday material by incarcerated artists using their creative practice to look beyond the boundaries of unfreedom. 

Nearly half of the featured artists are currently incarcerated, while the others are formerly incarcerated artists, independent artists, or teaching artists who work to facilitate art programming inside. At a time of global crisis, the artists are generously donating some or all of the profits from the sale of their original work to JAC, helping to sustain JAC’s mission as we continue to seek and implement innovative ways to support artists creating in and around the carceral system, to uplift and amplify their voices and celebrate their work. JAC is grateful to have found support in our network of artists both inside and out. 

View the virtual gallery online at Tour the exhibition using the 3D virtual gallery feature, learn more about the artists, or look through the pieces in the gallery.

For a deeper look at some of the incredible pieces in the exhibition, JAC spoke with featured teaching artists Michelle Repiso and Treacy Ziegler. 

Michelle Repiso

JAC: How did you become involved in this work? What was your path to where you are today?

Michelle Repiso: In 2016 I was part of a team of filmmakers that produced a short documentary called, “Locked Apart: The Impact of Incarceration on Families.” The work is currently exhibited at Eastern State Penitentiary as part of Prisons Today: Questions in the Age of Mass Incarceration. A few months later I had an art show (unrelated to the film) and I received an email asking if there were artists interested in providing art to women at Rikers Island twice a week for a month. That month at Rikers had such a profound impact on me that I wanted to continue working with various facilities. This led me to develop my program which I have continued ever since. Create & Connect is designed to keep families unified through a creative process of dialogue and hands-on art projects for incarcerated men, women, young adults, and adolescents. Participants create original projects to send to their children, family or friends as a way to unify and maintain communication. In 2020 my program was going to include teaching photography to the adult population, which I was very excited about, but due to the pandemic that has been paused. Currently, I provide remote art packets but I do miss having the in-person connection and dialogue.

JAC: How have your students impacted your own art and creative process?

MR: I work as a freelance photographer and art facilitator but teaching became the next progression in my career. I want to share a viable skill with other people and especially my love of analog film. When you teach you also do a lot of listening, which I enjoy. My art and creative projects have been greatly impacted by my students and through the moments and conversations we have. I freelance for various organizations and I can unequivocally say that every class has left a great imprint on my art practice and on my soul. Not to be so deep but my students have shaped the person that I aspire to be.

JAC: Could you speak a bit about your pieces in JAC’s exhibition. What was your inspiration / process?

MR: I am very honored to be a part of JAC’s exhibition and it means a great deal to share my current project. In 2016 I was photographing Coss Marte for his exercise book (Coss is the CEO and founder of CONBODY, a NYC based fitness company that promotes a boot camp style workout he developed while serving time). After the photoshoot, I met one of his trainers. Shane was very enthusiastic and started telling me stories about the art he created while he was incarcerated. He mentioned how he would play chess while in solitary confinement and he then proceeded to show me how the chess pieces were created with toilet paper and water. A numbering system was shouted to the men in adjoining cells so they could play. I was so interested in learning more. He also made beautiful flowers out of toilet paper to include in letters that he sent to his wife. Coss and Shane had so many interesting things to say that I wanted to document their story. They are the heart and inspiration behind Basic Necessities and the project grew to include Juan’s story of music and poetry. Throughout 2017 and 2018 we collectively worked on the project and I recorded their stories as well. It’s so important that people hear their voices. They were willing to share their journey with me and I want to share it with others.

JAC: Is there anything else you would like to share about your art or yourself?

MR: In 2020 I received a grant from the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council to exhibit Basic Necessities, which documents three individuals and the mechanisms they used to sustain their humanity while incarcerated. Due to the pandemic, my exhibition was postponed. I didn’t want to have a one-time Zoom event, I wanted to create a space where people could physically see the exhibit. I decided the safest thing to do would be to exhibit the show outdoors. Coss reached out to where his former studio was located and they approved my request to exhibit on the facade of the building. In my art practice, I enjoy collaborating with other artists and I am currently working with Steve Ellis who will be painting a mural that incorporates the title and elements of the show. Photographs will be affixed on the exterior so visitors can learn more about the project. This will be completed in April 2021 on the Lower East Side of NY. In the meantime, please check out and I will post more information on my website once the project is installed.

How it all started. The first day I met Shane he eagerly shared how he created the chess pieces.

You can watch a video of Shane creating a flower out of toilet paper here

Treacy Ziegler

JAC: How did you become involved in this work? What was your path to where you are today?

Treacy Ziegler: About 12 years ago, after exhibiting my art in galleries and museums for 15 years, I decided to find a different audience than the one I knew in the art world. My concerns about the gallery audience were that it was a limited audience organized for the most part by two variables – money and power. I wanted to find a different audience. This audience could have been any other group to whom the art world was not available because of their lack of money and power – persons without homes, children, nursing homes, and so on. At some point, I started exploring the possibility of exhibiting my art to the prison population. As far as I knew this audience did not have money and power as we come to know in the outside society.

With this goal in mind, I wrote to wardens and superintendents of prisons throughout the United States asking if I could exhibit my own art in their prisons. Having studied social work before art school, I knew the appropriate language that could have enhanced my goal; suggesting my art would be a positive influence or a good outlet or whatever sound justification I could come up with to exhibit art in prisons. But I didn’t use such language or reasoning. Who am I to say how my art should or would be received by individuals living in prisons? Instead, my letter to prisons merely asked if I could have an art show in their prison; offering no beneficial reason for it. 

For the most, I received rejections; letters implying, “What are you, nuts? This is a prison!” I got one very chilling letter from a men’s super-maximum-security prison in Florida suggesting that his “heinous inmates” were not only not going to see my art, for the most, these “very heinous inmates” (yes, he wrote that description twice) never saw the light of day.

Eventually, I received six prisons who were intrigued with the idea of having an outside artist’s art exhibition in their prisons and invited me to visit (6 prisons in 4 states). In each of these prisons willing to exhibit my art, someone there with authority had loved art; the superintendent in one prison or the program director in another. This person in authority either studied art themselves or was related to an artist and respected the impact of art.

After arriving at one prison with a truckload of art – 50 large paintings – to be distributed throughout the prison (curated by the prisoners and first dependent upon whether the prisoners wanted the art) I was asked to voluntarily teach art classes. I started teaching in three prisons in three states on a regular basis.

The 50 paintings remain in the prison where I delivered them eleven years ago; hanging in chow halls, mental health ward, the hospice unit, and hallways throughout the prison. The curating prisoners decided to hang a series of my bird paintings in the hospice unit. Years later, I overheard a guard laughing that a dying man was speaking to the birds. When I wondered out loud to him if the paintings could have been a comfort in the man’s dying hours, the guard looked at me incredulously.

Traveling to several states and giving my art away for free became expensive. Realizing my need for money (mostly targeting my friends to help support this project) I applied to the Center for Transformative Action affiliated with Cornell University to be my fiscal sponsor for a 501(c)(3). I was accepted as a project under CTA. Gary Fine who directs Prisoner Express, another project of CTA, and myself decided that we were working on parallel prison projects. It made sense for us to work together and my project which was named “An Open Window” was absorbed into Prisoner Express.

Prisoner Express (PE) is a distant learning project that provides twice yearly free newsletters to individuals in any prison throughout United States. In these newsletters, we publish essays and art sent to us from prisoners. The newsletters also offer various courses free to any incarcerated person interested. The courses change from newsletter to newsletter. The most recent newsletter invites individuals to participate in the projects of poetry, journal writing, chess club, meditation, art newsletter, philosophy, mental health studies, learning to write a screen play, role playing games. The latest 2021 newsletter can be read here.

In the past couple of years, I have focused upon the distant learning projects of PE (and of course, that was fortunate because of Covid) instead of in-person teaching at prisons. I felt that I could reach a wider audience – and here a different audience than the one I had initially imagined for my art. Instead, the audience to whom I wanted to connect to now were those who were interested in my sharing art skills and information with them; and an audience to whom I could help make their own visual voices heard. In the PE project, the participating group is approximately 5000-6000 individuals. I loved teaching in prisons, but I always knew my teaching in prisons was accountable to a structure I could not support. Through the mail, I do not have the same authority over me.

JAC: How have your students impacted your own art and creative process?

TZ: An ironic outcome of immersing myself in prison work is that I found a freedom for my own art. No longer concerning myself to a paying and powerful customer, I could create however. This has burned some of my commercial gallery relationships, but I gained a vast expanse for creative experimentation.  My initial mediums of monoprints. and paintings began to include sculpture. I have learned how to weld, cast bronze, and more recently cast paper sculptures. Art became a journey without an end.

JAC: Could you speak a bit about your pieces in JAC’s exhibition. What was your inspiration / process?

TZ: The paper cast sculptures and PE letters: PE has been archiving thousands of prisoners’ essays and poems. In the past two years, we have developed a national archive for the visual art. Some of the work is shared with the public; others, like the journals, are not. It is PE’s hope that we preserve and give voice to that work and writing which the participants of PE deem important.

Although every letter received by PE is read and responded to by Gary Fine, the director, myself, another volunteer, or a student, it would be impossible to save the thousands of letters accompanying this work/art; not to mention the thousands of simple requests just to participate in the PE program (albeit, often with sad stories). After they are answered, these letters have historically been recycled.

A couple of years ago I wanted to create something that honored these simple requests that seemed to ask for a participation in the outside world; simple requests conveying the loneliness, hope, regret and other emotions of being isolated in prison. I started creating paper-cast sculpture from the recycled letters; first shredding and then making pulp. A lawyer for San Quentin death row contacted me and asked if I would create a sculpture honoring the letters she saved from working with death row individuals. It was too difficult for her to throw these letters away. Instead, she sent me the shredded letters. I have shared the experience of making sculpture with the PE participants as well as the individuals on San Quentin’s death row.

The piece, “A dream is where we’ll meet” is dedicated to all those in prison who are living with mental health issues. (12 feet x 6 feet by 3 feet). While drawing the giraffes at the zoo, I felt a sense of their other-worldliness and thought of Clarence, a prisoner who has been writing to me for years. I suspect Clarence has been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia – and he has been living in solitary confinement for years. The proportional size of a giraffe is magical and won’t fit into the normality of standard measurements. This size resistance to the mundane – to what we as a society demand as normal – furthers my thinking of Clarence and lines he wrote to me: 

“I once measured myself and
I was nine distances upwards in height.
Nine widths in full circle;
four points in surface straight
across the level top.
This I will extend once freed
And we will make a temple
based upon you.”

The sculpture entitled, “Without want or need, I turn inward and feed on my heart.”  (Camel 69x82x36”) is dedicated to prisoners living in solitary confinement. The camel relies on its internal water source to survive the desert harshness: The prisoner in solitary confinement depends upon heart.

I have two sets of correspondence (archived) from Jerome and Billy, representing different painful responses to solitary confinement. Billy hung himself in his cell during the 2012 hunger strike in California and our correspondence extends from the year and half before until he hung himself. His depression could be felt in these letters. (The letters between Billy Sell and myself are on exhibition at the MoMA PS1; Marking Time; Art in the age of Mass Incarceration.)

Jerome taught himself to read in solitary and writes to me, “I saw a Bright light in learning.” My correspondence with Jerome extends over 10 years. There are years in which he is terribly depressed, other years not so bad.  Jerome most recently asked if I could send him books on mental illness so he could understand himself better. In one letter he asks, “Tell me Mrs. Treacy, why are your animals so sad?”

The paper cast fish in the Inside/Out exhibition is part of “The horizon is a distant memory,” an installation 50-feet by 30-feet, paper cast. Presented as an aquarium (in an exhibition at the Erie Art Museum), this installation comprises 12 trees topped with birds and 18 fish swimming among the trees. It is in memory of the lost horizon that cannot be found in prison.

For creating the paper cast sculptures I transferred my skills from bronze casting; first creating the piece in clay, then making a mold over that clay, pressing the paper pulp into the molds, baking those paper-filled molds in a low heat oven, and assembling the paper cast pieces as a whole. After the pieces (the giraffe was cast in 33 pieces) are assembled (with an internal steel armature) the piece is given a patina of paint. Cast paper is very durable and the giraffe at 12-feet weighs about 350 pounds. (The small fish in the JAC exhibition weighs less about a pound.)

During this time of Covid isolation, I have turned in my studio work from working the massive paper cast animal sculptures to working on small icon paintings of animals (as the painting “Totem” in the JAC exhibition). The intimacy of these pieces felt right for this time of enforced reflection. When we are able to travel again, I hope to revisit Ireland exploring that landscape through painting. As I move through my studio changes, I am fortunate to be able to share my work with the incarcerated participants of PE; from whom I have gained so much support and inspiration.

For more information, please visit my website at

JAC is honored to feature Michelle and Treacy’s remarkable work. View their pieces and the rest of the Inside & Out exhibition here

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