These days, statistics and numbers about mass incarceration proliferate. We know abuses happen inside prisons and jails across the United States on an inconceivably large scale. We read that the United States incarcerates a fourth of the world’s prison population. These numbers are mind-numbing and shocking, but their magnitude is difficult to comprehend; how well can we really grasp the concept of millions of people locked up in cages? The statistics must work in tandem with individual stories. Behind the graphs and charts, it is important to remember that the people who make up the numbers have names because even one person locked up and abused is one too many.
Hasbrook Galleries’ new book, Action and Reaction: Anatomy of the Carceral State, presents stories of 13 people incarcerated in Wisconsin via letters written by their own hands. 13 artists were paired with these 13 incarcerated people for this book of “personal stories and reaction art.” The book contains scans of each original letter along with high-quality images of the artwork. While each story highlights an aspect of incarcerated life, each work of art furthers the dialogue between the letter – a plea for help – and the outside world. The reader continues this cycle of action + reaction. When compiled, they add to the “larger story of the human rights violations and devastation perpetrated by mass incarceration,” a story that implicates the reader along with the art community. Proceeds of the book will be donated to the incarcerated individuals featured in the book. Purchase Action and Reaction here.
Justice Arts Coalition spoke to two featured artists about the project, Sam Lindenfeld and Shiloah Coley. You can view Sam’s piece on his Instagram here. You can view Shiloah’s piece on her Instagram here. Both pieces, along with images of the book, can be viewed on Hasbrook Galleries’ Instagram here.
Justice Arts Coalition: Tell me about your background as an artist. What got you interested? How do you represent yourself as an artist?
Sam Lindenfeld: I have this thing called Auditory Processing Disorder. It’s a neurological issue that I have with my brain, but it really affects my hearing and my speech. Let’s say I’m in a crowded room or cafeteria: I can hear every voice around me at the same volume as if it’s right next to me, so it’s hard for me to differentiate sound. And therefore, it was really hard for me to comprehend speech growing up, so I had serious speech problems. When I was a kid, I had to go through years and years of arduous speech therapy, and I really didn’t know how to speak any language at all until I was probably around six or seven, a little older than usual. So the only way that I could really express myself or tell others how I’m doing or what I’m doing with my life was drawing. So I would be in speech therapy, and the speech therapist would say, “How are you feeling today?” And I would have to draw it out, because I couldn’t even write anything. Drawing became the way to communicate when I couldn’t, and then that’s what got me into making art. Because I realized that I really enjoyed it. It was out of necessity. Now it’s out of passion. But we’re back to necessity again, because this is what I do, what I try to do for a living.
I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what my voice was, and I still am trying to figure it out. But right now my work has gone from being urban psychedelia, which is using visual language that I gathered from growing up in D.C. Using it to tell stories about either the Bible, or the Torah (which is the Jewish religious text), dissecting those ideas, and also dissecting certain stories from my own past life. I’m also Jewish, I have family that’s survived the Holocaust. It’s relevant because that’s intergenerational trauma like everyone has in their life. But my grandmother was an artist, and inadvertently became a really influential part of my life. It was hard to connect with her, but I think her discipline and her ability to critique really harshly influenced me as a kid. It was hard to connect with her, but after she passed away, I was able to understand the amount of discipline and practice that goes into her craft. And I implement that in my own life now.
JAC: If we can pivot a little bit to the book itself, and the letter that you were assigned – do you remember where you were when you first read the assigned letter? And do you remember your first reaction when you read it?
SL: I was at my house, in my apartment. My apartment is also my studio. So it’s where I work and digest stuff like that. And the first reaction I had to the letter was that it was hard to read his handwriting. The letter was from Jay Saddler. It was a pretty long one. I read it in intervals. I stopped and then I came back, and then I stopped because I wanted to digest it as best as I could. The first thing was that he seemed really desperate to express himself. It almost felt like he was trying to get everything out at once, but as condensed as possible. The other first impression I got was he said that he was from Chicago, but he was imprisoned in Wisconsin. And it was hard for him to interact with other people because he felt like Wisconsin was this foreign land to him. That was something that stuck out to me really heavily. More than anything, it’s the injury that he sustained that I had to take a little while to digest because I felt like it was really hard to imagine what it was like to be imprisoned and alone. And also lose a part of your body.
He’s obviously very eloquent. And he’s very, “Listen, this is my situation, and this is what I need. Let’s get that out of the way.” Eye-opening would be an understatement. As an artist, my eyes and my hands are everything. So, I mean, it’s egotistical, but it’s also empathetic to put myself in this position. But I’m thinking, damn, if I was in that position, and I lost my hand…to me, that would mean I would lose half of myself. I can go on and on about this man that I don’t know. But it’s really hard for me to really think about what it’s like to be him. I tried my best to not speculate too much about the rest of him. I wanted to try to stick with the letter. I didn’t want to assume anything good or bad about Jay.
JAC: Can you describe more about your creation process? Where did you start? When did you decide it was complete?
SL: Everything starts with a sketch in my sketchbook. I was going over the letter and highlighting certain areas that I felt exemplified the overall situation that I’m trying to capture in a painting. I was sketching the key themes of this letter, which felt like solitude, loss, navigating through a foreign space, and debilitation. So, I was trying to see how I could draw that in my sketchbook without showing a prison cell. I felt like if I showed a prison cell, it would be too literal. And I felt like the reader or the viewer wouldn’t be able to empathize with the story as well as they could. Everyone should be able to realize what someone’s reality is in its real space, but sometimes people have a better sense of looking at things through a general visual scope.
So I knew I wanted it to be a painting that took place outside. And then I knew I didn’t want to actually paint his injury, because I feel like that would have been, if he were to see it, triggering for him. It would have been fucked up. Sometimes shock value is good, but when it’s someone else’s story – I think it’s best to not dive into that too much without their permission. I want to consider [Jay] as the audience. I just know, at some point, those guys are going to get the book, and I would like to be speaking to him first, and then everyone else. So I wanted to show that isolation and the ending of growth through the branches of the trees that surrounded him. Because that’s really what prison is: it stops your growth to a large degree.
I wanted to make a painting that could serve him. The real thing that I was thinking was, how do I make a really fucking cool painting about this so that I can sell it and then give [Jay] the money?
JAC: Why did you decide to work on this project, and what do you think is its value?
SL: I wanted to work on the project because I really enjoyed the product and the message that it was trying to tell, and its honesty. I liked the fact that the proceeds went to the incarcerated individuals that were involved. That was something that was important to me. I don’t like poverty porn. I don’t like doing things that are about shock value, especially when it has to do with real people’s stories. Growing up, I knew people that had been to jail. And I know people now who are in prison. I have no clue, no fucking idea what it’s like, and I’m never gonna act like I do. But I’ve always had a certain level of empathy or connection with people who may have been incarcerated before. Those are all the things that drove me to want to work on the project.
JAC: Tell us about your background as an artist – your bio, your statement, what got you interested in art.
Shiloah Coley: I view myself as a storyteller. I think that’s the best word to capture the research, writing, archiving and making I do as a person, an artist. I welcome folks to re-write and interrogate existing narratives with me. This all started as a deeply personal family archiving journey I’ve been on for a couple of years now. I utilize comic-making, collage, portraiture, animation and the occasional sculpture to explore motifs of plethoras of selves, childhood joys and traumas, grief, and displacement. My studio practice is inseparable from my community-engaged practice rooted in making the arts more accessible through community-centered public projects and art programming with youth.
JAC: Do you remember where you were when you first read the assigned letter from an incarcerated person? Do you remember your first reaction upon reading it? What stuck with you the most?
SC: I remember reading it and thinking “Oh my God, how on earth do I capture what’s in this letter and put it into a piece?” Especially as someone who typically works in collage and portraiture. I’m accustomed to having photos, family archives, objects, and stories to draw from. But for this, it was just the letter, and the weight of it felt so important. Too important. I knew my typical way of working with collage and portraiture wouldn’t work for this piece. What stuck with me the most was their concern about not being present for their children’s lives. There are parts of the letter that uncover how cycles of trauma work, and it’s clear that they perceive this occurring with their children but feel powerless to prevent it from happening.
JAC: What was your process when creating your piece – where did you start? And how did you decide it was complete?
SC: Where did I start? I don’t think I knew how to start. I’ve never made a sculpture before, but I knew I wanted to create an insidious mass that would then convey some sort of troubling or traumatic relationship with a child. At first, I didn’t know how exactly to convey the presence or absence of a child, so that part came second, and the large mass came first. I’d started working with fabric and resin earlier that year, and I thought those materials might lend themselves to the sculpture. It was quite laborious to make, which felt important too. A certain amount of physicality was required to cut and tear the black fabric I was using. I tore it into little pieces that were then applied using resin to the hardware cloth. As I collected materials for the sculpture, I also found the high chair and it immediately felt like a good fit. This is one of the first pieces I created that was very intuition-driven.
I did one big resin pour over the piece. I knew this would be the final stage besides little clean-up tasks. So in a way, I knew the piece was done once the resin was dried. It had to be done. Not much could be changed after the resin was poured.
JAC: What emotions and feelings did you try to invoke with your piece?
SC: I can’t tell an audience how to feel. But I hope there’s some indication that something frightening, terrifying, or just insidious is occurring with the swooping gesture of the mass over a child’s high chair. A commentary is being made on the role the carceral state has in creating and further exasperating trauma and the perpetuation of trauma on to children. But maybe the absence of the child says something as well, has the child escaped or been consumed? That’s up to the narrative the viewer creates on the piece based on what they’re bringing to the table when viewing it.
JAC: Why did you decide to work on this project, and what do you think is its value?
SC: I view this piece as a collaboration. It wouldn’t have been possible without the person who wrote and volunteered their letter. I imagined this project might provide an opportunity for an audience who may not directly feel the impacts of the carceral state in their personal lives to grapple with its implications.
See more of Shiloah’s art on Instagram.