For a deeper look at some of the incredible pieces in JAC’s inaugural online exhibition, Inside & Out: Photorealists to Minimalists, JAC spoke with featured artists Sandra Miller and Cherie Hacker.
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. 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 and are excited to carry on this mission through JAC’s unique virtual exhibition.
From abstract paintings to computer-animated video units and everything in between, Inside & Out features over 70 pieces of art from over 30 artists, reflecting the broad range of styles, media, and subject matter that inspire systems-impacted and allied artists. 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 our mission of harnessing the transformative power of the arts to reimagine justice. JAC is grateful to have found support in our network of artists both inside and out.
JAC: What drew you to JAC/this project?
Sandra Miller: I’ve been involved with issues of mass incarceration, racism, and carceral justice in general, since 2010 when Michele Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow came out. I had also had an incarcerated pen pal some years before, and felt like that was a mutually beneficial relationship to have with someone whose background and possibilities for a full life were so much different than mine. Being an artist and finding out about JAC was serendipitous and has brought much joy.
JAC: What is your background in art? What inspires you to create?
SM: I built my first project in kindergarten for “Show and Tell” with my grandfather. It was a simple airplane made with leftover lumber and painted bright orange. I started drawing and writing just a couple of years later, and I haven’t stopped since. Well, that’s not quite true, since I rarely draw anymore, nor do I write fiction any longer. Art was always my favorite subject in school, and I bucked the wishes of my stepfather by continuing to take art classes. I never went to art school, but I have taken numerous classes over many decades, and many media, and I retired from paid work in order to focus my life around art and social justice. I am inspired by the world and all life around me all the time, which becomes internalized and then expressed as a form of ecumenical prayer. Making art is, for me, a whole-body experience and whole mind experience, which I do for my own benefit.
JAC: Could you speak a bit about your pieces in the exhibition? What was your inspiration / process?
SM: I have two pieces in the show – Woman, and Storm. They are both specifically expressions of my work with making paper, offering the paper its own self-expression based on the contents of the pulp, and embedded materials, as it dries, shrinks, and becomes an element waiting for companion elements to become a complete sculpture. Almost always, I “play” with all the elements I have made by using clothespins to combine elements and then living with the form. Sometimes it’s right, and sometimes it takes reconfiguration over and over. It’s part of the meditation process.
In the case of Woman, she came together rather quickly, and as soon as she did, she revealed her name. It’s particularly interesting that some of the pulp is made from organic, twice recycled paper that came from egg cartons, and what more emblematic element of womanhood is there than the manufacture of eggs? Making Woman was part of my own healing process around sexual abuse. Storm, on the other hand is one of a series of “baskets” which is an expression of containers that aren’t meant to hold anything but beauty. The pulp for this paper included several recycled papers, and its blueness and sense of motion spoke to me of the ocean, about which I am so concerned.
JAC: Is there anything else you would like to share about your art or yourself?
SM: Making art is the core of my being, and opens me up to so much of life – from the beauty to the rampant injustice. Some of my work reflects that directly, some not so much. I spend a lot of time looking at other peoples’ art, which, of course, sometimes influences me, whether I recognize that or not, but which does change my life and my art. That is especially true of the incarcerated artists of JAC in general, and the pen pals I have through the program, specifically. Selfishly, I am made aware, over and over, of my privilege of being free to move around in the world (well, when the pandemic is over), and I can access studio space and art supplies, not to mention a roof over my head of my own choice, and all that goes with it. How humbling to be aware of the lengths to which incarcerated artists will go in order to create the things that give them life in such dire circumstances. One of my pen pals is so funny that I think when he gets out, he should be a stand-up comedian in order to effectively educate a wide audience of the realities of the injustice of our carceral system. Another is so incredibly thoughtful, and considers so deeply what his experience means in his life in important ways. I learn so much from every correspondence.
JAC: How did you become involved in this work?
Cherie Hacker: In 2016, I was selected by the Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission as a potential teaching artist for a Mentorship Grant to shadow Jim Carlson in his Arts in Corrections class at New Folsom Prison. After our meeting, still hesitant, I agreed to just try it. In the class, I was able to give input and be part of the art dialog. I was treated with respect and came to know what value the art class held for the men. When the ten sessions were over, I applied to the William James Association to be contracted to teach the same students. I was fortunate to have the opportunity of Jim’s guidance, and hope my students have felt as rewarded as I do.
JAC: What was your path to where you are today?
CH: At CSP-SAC, I also shared art lessons with an EOP class and then another level 4 class, all three classes on different yards. As in any teaching environment, each has been a different experience with its challenges and rewards. In 2017, I began teaching two classes and in 2019 a third at Mule Creek State Prison. Since the very first class, many dedicated students have continued during the pandemic to complete Distant Learning packets. Developing consistent student-teacher relationships and watching artists grow from no experience to blossoming in their creativity has been the most rewarding of all! I could not have had this experience without the support of the William James Association and the opportunities allowed through conferences and continued guidance.
JAC: How have your students impacted your own art and creative process?
CH: After a lesson has been introduced, and I am not helping others, while the men are working on their art, I too will work on the same project in front of the class at my table. I feel it is important to share in the experience as well as be a role model. Therefore, I have been drawing much more than I have in years. It has brought me back to a focus although different than my studio work, inherently has an influence. I make mistakes and sharing that in critiques, as well as the successes is valuable for each of us.
JAC: Could you speak a bit about your pieces in JAC’s exhibition. What was your inspiration / process?
CH: Two of the paintings, Red at the Greens were painted amongst other artists in an outdoor garden at an artist residency motel called the Greens. The creative energy was high with everyone working on their own type of art, yet collectively sharing through osmosis. I was painting on an easel, others making sculpture or painting. It was a lovely day!
Black Cat was painted around the same time but in my studio. Although I am aware of composition when putting together different media in a piece, it is also a type of unconscious spontaneous combustion. I generally choose a color scheme depending on how I feel, then choose papers from my bagged collection. As I move through the process, I incorporate inks, oil pastels, oils, sand for texture, and the list goes on. The black cat appeared in the painting, so there you have it.
JAC: Is there anything else you would like to share about your art or yourself?
CH: I feel fortunate to teach art in prison and provide others with an opportunity to create. My studio is in a warehouse in Sacramento amongst a dozen artists and E Street Gallery where we put on shows primarily to encourage and support the community.