Art + Agency

About Art + Agency:

The Art + Agency conversation began during a roundtable at JAC’s 2021 Art For a New Future National Convening. Since then, JAC and returned artists Page Dukes, Kamisha Thomas, and Aimee Wissman have been diligently working to keep the dialogue going. 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. We are pleased to announce that we have received funding from the Art for Justice Fund to create and implement the code of ethics over the coming year.

The facilitation of this process will be led by JAC’s partners Kamisha Thomas and Aimee Wissman, Co-Founders of the Returning Artists Guild (RAG) and Page Dukes. They will be collaborating with a working group of 7 other artists, most of whom are still incarcerated. 

Success at the end of the first phase of this project will come in the form of the publication, promotion and dissemination of the code of ethics, in whatever form the working group determines, as well as the dissemination of a guide for artists in prison that covers the fundamentals of safely marketing and publishing their work, advice about pricing their work, and tips for self-advocacy. The second phase will include the creation of training materials and a plan to provide technical assistance to organizations that wish to ensure that their practices are equitable and in alignment with the code of ethics.

In the long term, we hope to see a critical mass of arts organizations, institutions, and individuals adopting the code of ethics, and incarcerated artists being equitably integrated into the art world. When they are being fairly compensated for their work, and feel that they have agency over the ways in which their work is being priced, promoted, marketed, exhibited, written about, published, etc., this project will have proven to be a success. 

Please reach out to artandagency@thejusticeartscoalition.org with any questions!

A + A Conversations:

The above recording is from the first Art + Agency conversation held with the JAC community. This session introduced the community to an open dialogue about exploitation, ethics, and restorative response was facilitated by Page Dukes and Anooj Bhandari.

The above recording is from the second Art + Agency conversation held with the JAC community. The open dialogue about exploitation, ethics, and restorative response was facilitated by Page Dukes and Anooj Bhandari.

In this session, the community reflected on two guiding questions:

  1. How do we define non-exploitative treatment of artists and art within our programs?
  2. What methods of intervention are available to us in thinking about how to intervene or interrupt within moments and trends of exploitation?

Our Team:

Partners/Leadership Team:

Aimee Wissman: I began my artistic practice in Ohio’s maximum security prison for women. In spaces of trauma, confinement, and disconnection I found myself reaching for the tools for self-expression, I taught myself to draw and paint over the course of five years inside, and now 3 “at home.” My practice relies heavily on experimentation, material concerns, surface obsession, and the interconnected narratives of racism, sexism, mass incarceration, privilege, community creation and destruction, addiction, homelessness, and mental health issues. I’m being driven by a longing for justice, a need to make something come from my/your/our trauma, and to be (perhaps) released in the making. 

Kamisha Thomas: Kamisha is a Columbus, Ohio native and second generation Justice Impacted Person, who is adamant about amplifying the voices of other JIP through creative expression. Always an avid pupil of English, Literature & the Arts, her educational journey blossomed into conquests of knowledge in the areas of communication, media production and ironically, criminal justice. She also achieved unprecedented success while incarcerated in a state correctional facility where she wrote and directed her first short film, BANG!, as a part of the Pens to Pictures Project. While her primary medium is creative writing, she utilizes her skills in graphic design, photography, video editing, and jewelry making as a form of therapy for everyday mental health and to clear up the writer’s block. 

Page Dukes: Page is a native Atlien, suffragist, abolitionist and lifelong writer and musician. Released in May 2017, she is a founding member of the Athens Reentry Collaborative, Mourning Our Losses, and Georgia Freedom Letters, and a comms staffer for the Southern Center for Human Rights, raising awareness about the effects of incarceration, the need for restoration of rights, accurate media representation and amplification of imprisoned voices. 

Working Group Participants:

Carole Alden: Born in 1960 in Orleans, France to American parents. Returned to grow up in the Western United States where I developed an abiding appreciation for the natural world. No formal education beyond high school. Two marriages that resulted in five children and three grandchildren. Prior to having children, I worked in clay and some bronze. Upon the first child’s arrival, my studio needed to be safe, so I switched to fiber work. By the time my youngest two were 14 and 9, I had added welding, glass work, and plastic fabrication/sculpture to the mix. From 1991-2006 I worked full time, producing sculptures for exhibits and fairs. I also taught workshops in soft sculpture, surface design, and regularly spoke to university programs. 

In July of 2006 life was irrevocably altered by an event of extreme domestic violence that culminated in my use of deadly force to preserve my own life and the lives of my children. Without resources for legal representation, I accepted a plea bargain and began a 15 year sentence for manslaughter. Housed at the Utah State Prison, I focused on maintaining my family connection through drawings, and eventually explored crochet as a means to create sculptural forms. Creating art in prison is fraught with angst. You must have written permission, in contract form, before starting any sort of craft project. Despite adherence to policy, SWAT can sweep through at any time and destroy or discard your artwork. I, personally, experienced this multiple times prior to being transported in 2014 to county jail for housing. While jail is considerably more restrictive than prison in many respects, my experience with staff being supportive of creative endeavors has been largely positive. I have been able to participate in the Hogle Zoo exhibit yearly, as well as a variety of charity events and other exhibits. While widely known for my large somewhat whimsical, wildlife sculptures, I have also developed a body of work that reflects the experiences of women dealing with domestic violence and the legal system. These works have been invited to international conferences and exhibits on prison reform in California, Maryland, and Helsinki, Finland. 

Having experienced being a battered woman, in a rural setting, with no services available, my hope is to utilize my full size Fish House studio to travel through similar areas and provide a network of information and assistance. Without a larger dialog to address support, and more scrutiny on how laws are enforced, women in rural areas will continue to be left to negotiate their existence daily. The status quo is unacceptable. I will continue to use my network to bring focus on this underserved population. 

Carla Simmons: My name is Carla Joan Simmons and I am serving my 17th year of a life sentence in the state of Georgia. I come from a long line of self-taught artists and from a young age connected with art as an extension of my voice and a method of survival. Currently, I benefit from art as a meditative practice and find that it is my only means of power in this world. Through it I am able to contribute to our culture and share my experience as a person whose life, and family, has been forever altered, and damaged, by the carceral system. 

Elisabeth “EJ” Joyner: I am EJ. I’ve been here almost two years longer than I was there. I am determined to give voices to those who cannot or are afraid to speak. I am determined to be the unexpected. I am determined to end “Their” profiteering of humanity. People must know. I will tell them. 

Kenneth Reams: Kenneth is an artist, social justice activist, and the founder of Who Decides, Inc., a non-profit that aims to raise awareness through the arts of the racial, ethical, and socio-economic issues intertwined with the history and practice of capital punishment in America. 

 

Mr. Reams is a native of Pine Bluff, Arkansas, one of the most impoverished cities in America. Growing up in poverty, struggling with hunger, abuse, and a lack of opportunity, criminality became an increasingly prominent, unfortunate facet of Mr. Reams’ life. Following a botched robbery at a drive-thru ATM, where his friend shot and killed a man in the heat of the struggle, Mr. Reams was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death, becoming the then-youngest inmate on Arkansas’ death row, despite not having pulled the trigger. 

Facing execution for a murder he did not commit, Mr. Reams refused to allow his spirit to be broken, deciding to hone his life-long artistic skills and vision in order to share his story and perspective with the world. His art has been donated to several institutions, published in books; such as “Marking Time” – released in 2020, and featured in exhibits from New York to Norway, Little Rock to London, and many locations in between. Through a variety of media, including paintings, sculpture, and poetry, Mr. Reams expresses a uniquely visceral vision of the inhumane, arbitrary nature of capital punishment and the exploitative character of the prison-industrial complex. 

Simultaneous with his rise in profile as an artist, Mr. Reams has become a prolific public speaker, engaging and enlightening an increasingly global audience. His past speaking engagements include talks at the International Film Festival on Human Rights in Switzerland, Stanford University, Bethany College, Princeton University, Columbia University, UNC Chapel Hill, St. Francis College in New York, Yale University, Geneva University – in Switzerland, and the University of Miami School of Law. 

With the release of Free Men, a documentary about Mr. Reams’ life, legal battles, and art, his story has taken on a new dimension and medium. As the film has made its way through the circuit of international film festivals, Mr. Reams has shared his thoughts about the film and the future with enraptured audiences in Beirut, France, Argentina, Islamabad, Great Britain, Tokyo, Belgium, and Vienna. 

Despite the physical limitations facing Mr. Reams, having spent the past 

twenty-seven years of his life in the solitary confines of a six-foot by nine-foot cell, Mr. Reams continues to make a lasting impact on all who hear his harrowing yet inspiring story, prompting a widening audience to evaluate their own conceptions of justice and morality. 

William B. Livingston, III: “My entire life, I’ve been a musician, but I’ve always wanted to be an artist.” 

Finding a new way to combine his passion for music, art, and the desire to give back to his community, William B. Livingston began designing and screen printing concert posters of the musicians he admires. These hand-printed posters would then be distributed for free by loved ones and volunteers to the patrons waiting in ticket lines at various music venues. 

Livingston reflects, “In 2010, I was sentenced to fifty years in prison for the death of a man that I caused by drinking and driving. Since music was not an option for the first three years of my forty-year incarceration, I decided to finally pursue painting. After some experimentation, I managed to find a style inside myself and dove in completely. Just as with my music upbringing, I have been self-taught.” 

“I love doing this concert poster project and the charity commissions because it is a way for me to be a part of the world – and to give back to a community and society from which I feel as if I have taken so much. All of this could never replace the person I killed through my negligence, but maybe it’s a way I can do something in his memory.” 

With the help of his loved ones, Livingston has been able to participate in galleries, festivals, exhibitions, and silent auctions which focus on uplifting and supporting communities. Seeking to take on projects which benefit charitable causes, Livingston has donated work for organizations such as the Special Olympics, Employment for the Disabled, the Messages Project, and the Outsiders House Renovation. His work is currently on display at the PS1 exhibition Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration at the Museum of Modern Art. 

Brett Gonzalez: Brett considers this work autobiographical and representative of the “terrible beauty found in both past actions and lessons learned.” He uses paints, collage, pastel, and found materials to re-examine and re-contextualize the imagery found in the media around him, often magazines. “It seems that I shaped my life around a distorted reality that I perceived in media at a young age. Today, I use this same media to explore my previous misunderstandings by appropriating it for artistic purposes.” Utilizing the fashion magazines available to him, he explains, “I recompose these images, adding a new context to them that expresses my own sense of isolation, frustration, and societal impotence as well as my growing understanding of previous wrongs. I do this while also questioning the magazine’s original context of economics, art, and sexuality.” . 

While making art, Brett says, “I am no longer myself, no longer in prison, but an active participant in a conversation that has been going on for the length of human history. A conversation that can trace its roots back to the first markings on cave walls. I am filled with a desire to express my experience of life in a way that will transcend my own life. This is what art is about for me.” Brett currently serves as Chair of JAC’s Board of Directors. 

Spoon Jackson: Born into a family of fifteen boys in Barstow, California, Spoon Jackson was sentenced to Life Without Possibility of Parole when he was twenty years old. He discovered himself as a writer at San Quentin; played Pozzo in the prison’s 1988 production of Waiting for Godot; and has written, published, and received awards for plays, poetry, novels, fairy tales, short stories, essays, and a memoir during the more than forty years he has been behind bars. His poems are collected in Longer Ago, and he co-authored the memoir By Heart: Prison, Poetry, and Two Lives with teaching artist Judith Tannenbaum.