by Clare Walker with Hunter Isenstein, Jesse DiMeglio, Iris Lin, Ian Trawinski, and Robin McNulty
2021 wasn’t an easy year, by any stretch of the imagination. We all experienced losses, confronted fears, and witnessed the suffering of people we care about. As the year draws to a close, we’re giving our grief room to breathe but also taking moments to savor our accomplishments.
Throughout the year, JAC found new ways to work in solidarity with and provide support to artists who are or have been imprisoned, and we continued to widen our circle. More than 315 artists now have portfolios on our website, and our team has received and responded to over 113 inquiries and requests from artists new to our network.
Our team expanded as well! We welcomed a number of new interns throughout the year to join our Founding Director, Wendy, our volunteer coordinator, Jayme, and our web team advisor, Robin. Volunteers Caitlyn, our events team advisor, and Alison, our fundraising and development advisor, also joined the team this fall.
Here are some of the team’s art picks for 2021:
This past June, JAC hosted its first ever national convening, and it was a huge success! A jam-packed three-day virtual event, the convening welcomed over 400 attendees from all over the country and abroad. Participants had the opportunity to learn from and engage with over 85 speakers across 28 sessions, creating, connecting, and harnessing the liberatory power of the arts to reimagine justice.
Publicly available content from the convening can be found here.
The convening gave space to a lot of important conversations that have continued beyond the event. Art + Agency, which began as a roundtable discussion between currently and previously incarcerated artists about the omnipresent risk of exploitation that they face when looking to market their creative work, has just been funded by the Art for Justice Fund, a sponsored project of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors. Art + Agency centers the experiences and leadership of artists with lived experience of incarceration in developing a code of ethics intended to become the standard to which organizations, institutions, and individuals that exhibit, sell, and/or publish creative work by systems-impacted individuals hold themselves accountable. JAC’s partners in Art + Agency are Kamisha Thomas and Aimee Wissman of the Returning Artists Guild and Page Dukes. They are leading the project and facilitating ongoing dialogue between the artists that participated in the initial conversation until the code of ethics is complete. Read more about this important initiative and the team here.
Our CorrespondARTS program celebrated its 1 year anniversary this fall. CorrespondARTS is a multidisciplinary, distance learning arts program providing themed packets of prompts and activities in creative writing, poetry, theatre, and visual art to artists inside Maryland prisons. CorrespondARTS began as a pilot at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women after the pandemic shut down all in-person programming in prisons, and was the first program of its kind in the state. It has now grown to include participants at three other Maryland prisons: Dorsey Run CF, Central Maryland CF, and Baltimore City CF. The program reflects JAC’s continuing commitment to ensuring that people in prison have access to opportunities for creative expression.
“I find that these exercises make it easier and easier to open up, and I actually end up feeling good when I’m finished. They’re very therapeutic…
I appreciate you guys and this program for giving me the opportunity to express myself and helping me to constructively pass the time in here. This is definitely something special that y’all got going. Take care of yourself.”
-Erik, CorrespondARTS participant
We’ve partnered with a number of other organizations over the past year to further our mission. Thanks to support from the Art for Justice Fund‘s Activating Art and Advocacy initiative, JAC has just teamed up with DC-based social impact production company Unchained Stories in order to bring their curriculum program JUSTstories to our network. Through a series of workshops and labs offered on a virtual platform, we plan to bring the program to a cohort of 8 organizations and artists. In the end, each participant will have a short documentary-style video that introduces their own story and their work, and together these videos will begin to weave a narrative about the power of art and impacted voices to advance our collective goal to end mass incarceration. Learn more about the JUSTstories project here.
JAC held over 20 virtual workshops in 2021 from screenings to speakers that included currently incarcerated artists, teaching artists, and advocates, among others. Thank you to all who attended! If you’re interested in facilitating a workshop or presenting a discussion or performance through Create + Connect series in 2022, please reach out!
This December, members of our team and volunteers hosted holiday card writing events across the country. They were a huge success, with over 400 letters sent to artists in prison around the country.
Over 240 pairs of artists are currently corresponding through our pARTner project, which provides artists on the outside an opportunity to foster connection with artists in prison through the exchange of letters and creative works. That’s almost 100 new connections that have been made over the last year!
Amidst this year of continued uncertainty, Wednesday evening network gatherings have held a special place as a space for community connection, mutual support, resource sharing, and solidarity. This year we hosted nearly 50 weekly gatherings. From book launches, artist spotlights, and networking, to art making, creative visioning, and intention setting, each Wednesday night gathering has been generative and healing in its own way.
In addition to everything that JAC has been able to accomplish online and through the mail this year, we also hosted two in-person exhibitions! In September, “Incarceration and Creativity: Art as Human Need,” JAC’s first exhibition since the onset of the pandemic, opened at the Sandy Spring Museum in Maryland. Featuring work by 26 artists in JAC’s network, Incarceration and Creativity emphasized our intrinsic need for creative expression, the courage and resourcefulness required to create a work of art within the repressive confines of a prison, and the power that art has to remind us of our shared humanity.
Then in October, we opened “We Belong here: Reclaiming Space Through Art” at Rhizome DC. Featuring over 50 works by incarcerated artists who have ties to the DC area, We Belong Here explored themes of community, space, identity, and (re)connection. It felt so good to be able to share JAC network artists’ work with our local community again!
Our first online exhibition launched last spring and featured works by over 40 JAC network artists. Over the course of the year we have been able to facilitate opportunities for dozens of artists to have their work exhibited and published through numerous partner organizations, including MoMA PS1, Marking Time, Scalawag Magazine, Iron City Magazine, and PEN America’s Prison and Justice Writing Program.
Continually realizing the value of in-person spaces which allow us to foster connection with each other and artists in JAC’s network, one of our biggest hopes for the new year is a physical space to ground ourselves in, which would enable JAC volunteers and team members to more easily work together to keep our many programs running.
We made some big strides in 2021 and are closing out the year with much to celebrate and be grateful for, especially your support. Please consider investing in our ongoing growth by making a year-end contribution. You can help to ensure that we can continue providing our community with opportunities for creative expression, connection, and learning. There are a lot of exciting new developments on the way, and we can’t wait to share them with you. Please consider donating either monthly or single-time as 2021 comes to a close, both to celebrate what we’ve already accomplished, and to ring in 2022.