Teaching Artist Spotlight: Joel Bergner

Joel Bergner (aka Joel Artista) is the CEO and Co-Founder of the non-profit organization Artolution, through which he trains and supports local artists in vulnerable communities to lead their own community art programs, affecting the lives of thousands of children each year. Artolution partners with UNICEF, the International Rescue Committee, UNHCR and other agencies to integrate community-based public art programming in humanitarian response around the world. 

Joel is an artist, educator and organizer of community-based public art initiatives with youth in conflict-affected and traumatized communities around the world, from Syrian refugee camps to American prisons; the favelas of Brazil to the Kibera Slum of Kenya. His elaborate, large-scale murals weave smoothly between realism with an urban art sensibility and the raw expressions of children, who learn to tell their stories through art. Joel travels the globe with his wife, CJ Thomas, who leads dance and theatre workshops, and their young daughter, Amara.

Artolution programs have served over 6,000 participants living in refugee, displaced, and underserved communities. They focus on building up local artists and leaders to support year-round programming in our core regions; Bangladesh, Uganda, Jordan, Colombia, and the United States. Artolution has trained a total of 68 artists around the world to run collaborative art-making programs.

JAC: What is Artolution’s mission and goal as an organization? 

JB: Artolution is a non-profit organization and a global movement. We focus on collaborative art-making as a way for people in vulnerable communities, and those who have experienced trauma to come together and have a platform that allows them to shape their own narratives, and tell their own stories, and also build healthy relationships along the way. We focus on many different types of art forms to do this, especially art forms that are in public spaces and in communities. We do community murals, and sculptures and different types of performance, like dance and theatre. We’ve done many virtual projects, as well, which brings together our different communities around the world. This includes animation projects, and storytelling, and digital art. We really work with many mediums but it always has this common element in it, which is that it’s collaborative, and really focuses on the participants themselves. Deciding what the artwork will be about, what the themes will be, what the imagery will be, what the composition will be, it always comes down to the participants deciding those things. 

I am a community artist, a mural artist, among other things, and I’m also the co-founder and co director of Artolution. I’ve been working on this concept of collaborative art making as a way to strengthen resilience in vulnerable communities, such as refugee camps and people who are incarcerated, for many years now. I have a background in not only public art, but also in counseling young people who have experienced trauma. And this is my passion. 

JAC: What inspired Artolution to look into expanding your programs into the criminal justice system? 

JB: Artolution has not yet done much work with those who have been involved in the criminal justice system but as a community artist, I have done a lot of that work in the past. I worked with women in a prison in Maryland, did many projects in juvenile detention centers, and in New York, I worked with young returning citizens. And during a time like this, in which a lot of programming is moving to the virtual space, it was something that we really wanted to just start focusing on – people who are incarcerated and people who have been affected by the justice system. I think these virtual projects really have a lot to offer. Because those who benefit the most from this type of program are those who are the most isolated, the most marginalized, those who are really separated from society. There’s no population more isolated than those who are incarcerated. We were able to get some small funds to focus on pilot projects with those in the justice system. We hope to be able to scale this up and have a full fledged program. 

“I didn’t know that I can draw in public, or be on a ladder like men, you [Artolution] didn’t change the whole society but changed something inside of me”

– Ayah, Female Syrian Youth

JAC: Considering the work Artolution has done, what is unique about the new initiatives you’re hoping to bring to carceral spaces?

JB: One thing that will make our program unique is that we’re really interested in connecting our participants with those in other parts of the world and other cultures. It’s a really educational experience to meet, be creative, and work on collaborative art projects with someone who has had many of the same life experiences as you have, but is from also a very different social context and from a different culture. Individuals affected by the criminal justice system, connecting online through these projects that focus on theater, animation, digital art, storytelling, and character development – all of our different virtual bridges programs. We’ll be matching people up from it from different countries but from similar age demographics, so we’ll connect youth with other youth or adults with other adults. Bringing together people across the United States, the UK, and other countries where we have programs, such as Uganda, Colombia and South America, among other places, is really the goal of our program. 

We focus on collaborative art making as a tool, and we have a couple different ways we’re planning to do this. So first, those who have access to the internet can participate in our regular virtual bridges programs. This would be people who have been released, on probation or even may be incarcerated. But it happens to be rare that programs allow online options. Although it’s not common, there are a few institutions that are allowing it. So for those who can connect on the internet, we have virtual projects on zoom in which teaching artists are guiding the participants through creation, skill building, learning skills such as digital art, animation, stop motion animation, as well as collaborative storytelling, and many other art forms. We’re also doing theater and drama. And so this will provide an opportunity in virtual spaces to come together with artists, with other participants in other countries to work on collaborative art projects, and to form new friendships and learn about other cultures and, and make those new relationships. I think that’s a big focus for us. 

The second category would be those who are currently incarcerated and are not able to connect via the internet, which is most people who are incarcerated. For those people, both youth and adults, we are focusing on several different types of programs. One is that we’re planning to release a series of video based projects, that align with our normal programs, that the facility can play. The videos show the teaching artists guiding participants in that facility through the project and through the art making process. They learn the same skills, depending on what kind of resources they have. Some of them are more tech based such as digital art, but then others are very analog. Writing, drawing, storytelling and just movements with your body. Very basic skills but very powerful skills that also allow people to to collaborate with one another on those projects.  

We are also seeking ways to connect family members who are separated because of incarceration. We’re developing a series of activity books that are meant to be shared through the mail. There’s one we’ve created that is geared towards children and their loved one who is incarcerated. It is a storytelling work packet so the child or the family member at home is guided through the process of creating a story that includes both some simple writing as well as drawing pictures, but they don’t create the whole story, they guide you through part of it. And then the person who is incarcerated creates another big section on the story, and then they send it back to their family to have the final part of the story created. They send it back and forth and at the end, the final product is this illustrated story created by both people that can be enjoyed after that. That’s an example of the kinds of work packets that we are doing and this is really geared towards families during COVID, where people are even more separated and have fewer and fewer opportunities for visits. So we really want to focus on different ways to connect children and their parents as well as other family members who are separated because of incarceration.

JAC: What are you hoping your programs will give to system impacted individuals?

JB: So basically, our main goal is connection. It’s all about relationship building, strengthening relationships, and strengthening resilience among people who are really facing a lot of challenges. It’s about skill building in the arts but we think of those skills as being a tool that individuals can use to connect to others, whether it’s connecting with family members, or with peers, or connecting with artists across the world. The common denominator is this idea that collaborative art making can form these connections, and that those connections are so important for the well being and the mental health of all of us.

JAC: How do you envision your programs operating with COVID-19 considerations? And how will they potentially evolve in the future? 

JB: All the programs that I mentioned that we’re working on are with COVID-19 taken into consideration. So we are also looking to do things like mural programs inside of prisons and things like that but because of COVID, we’re currently focusing on the virtual projects, on the workbooks, and on the video based programs. However, I think that many of these programs we have been developing because of COVID have actually opened us up to many different tools. And some programs we will use after COVID because many of these activities have proven to be really impactful. Some of the work we’re doing with animation, some of the work we’re doing bringing together young people across borders, to learn from each other and to connect with each other, all of those things have a lot of value, whether it’s there for the pandemic or not. And so, I see many of these tools we’re developing being relevant afterwards as well.

JAC: What support / connections are you looking for from the JAC Network and wider justice art community?

JB: We’re looking for a few things. I’ve been talking to several different organizations: we are interested in partnerships with like minded organizations, especially those who already have participants or people who think they would be interested in participating in these kinds of projects. We’re also looking for teaching artists who have experience with these types of projects and virtual projects. Especially those with experience in the criminal justice system. Artolution has a methodology and a training manual – we really focus on professional development of our teaching artists. So these would be paid positions, leading virtual workshops, at this point just virtual, in the future, maybe physical as well. But because of the virtual aspect, the teaching artists can be based anywhere, they just need to be open to leading a variety of different types of arts based workshops.

JAC: Is there anything else you’d like to add to our audience?

JB: The last thing would be just to say that we are very open. For Artolution, most of our experience has been in mural making and performances with refugees in refugee camps and things like that. So this is something that is new for us. For that reason, we would love to hear from organizations and teaching artists who have more experience who may already be developing similar types of projects. We’d love to collaborate, we’re very open to partnering. And so if anyone has comments, suggestions or questions or feedback or ways that we can improve the kinds of ideas that we’re currently working on, we’re open to all of that. 

Click here to learn more about Joel and Artolution, and click here to join them in reaching their goals.  

JAC’s 2020 Wrapped

As 2020 comes to an end, we are proud to share a snapshot of what the Justice Arts Coalition has accomplished this year. We couldn’t have done it without you – our readers, community members, and supporters!

We’re excited to announce that we have launched a redesign of our virtual galleries, now featuring over 200 artist portfolios and new themed galleries to better display the incredible work of our over 300 network artists.

Our team has grown! For full team bios, head here. The screenshot below is from a team meeting with 9 interns (Joslyn, Molly, Hailey, Nora, Melissa, My, Ava, Anna, and Isa), our volunteer coordinator Jayme, our network engagement and communications coordinator Cat, and our founding director Wendy. 5 interns are staying on next year, and 6 new interns will be joining! We’re looking forward to expanding our capacity by expanding our community and team.

Here are some intern art picks for 2020:

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Through this difficult and unprecedented year, we have been committed to innovating new ways to amplify and support system-impacted artists during the pandemic.

Our virtual holiday card making event was a huge success, with over 300 cards sent to incarcerated artists across the country.

Over 150 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.

Since the onset of the pandemic, we’ve held weekly virtual gatherings to create opportunities for connection and growth even amidst a year of uncertainty. Wednesday network meetings have been generative, inspirational, and a place of resource sharing and vulnerability. Bimonthly distance learning calls have succeeded in bringing together teaching artists from around the country to share curriculum and community.

JAC held over 40 workshops in 2020, ranging from discussions on art as transformative justice, the relationship between music and visual art, and digital bookclubs as a form of restoration. Speakers have included currently incarcerated artists, professors, teaching artists, and advocates, among others. Thank you to all who attended, and we can’t wait to launch even more next year!

This winter we launched CorrespondARTS, a first of its kind distance-learning arts program for women at the Maryland Correctional Institution. Thanks to your support and the Maryland State Arts Council, two rounds of packets have been printed and sent out to participants. The program is a representation of JAC’s commitment to breaking down barriers keeping folks isolated. We are currently fundraising for CorrespondARTS to keep running.

Furthermore, we’ve partnered with a variety of other organizations in order to host special events and provide opportunities for our network of artists on the inside. One such example is the Open Mic Night on August 6th, which we held alongside Die Jim Crow Records. See the image for screenshots of performers from the night! Other partners include PEN America’s Prison and Justice Writing Program and MoMA PS1. We’re always striving to find ways of enabling people outside to experience and respond to the works of artists in prison. Our ArtLinks program, which moved online post-pandemic, seeks to do exactly that: bring people together to respond to incarcerated artists’ works. Here’s why the work matters:

“Knowing that there are still people out there who care enough to take the time to send and/or listen to what I feel I need to say is such a blessing. Being in this place, sometimes it feels that nobody cares or that I am simply forgotten. My heart is full of things that I believe need to be shared. And having that means more to me then you may ever know.” – Jordan, JAC network artist

Throughout this past year, we have also been more vocal than ever about our commitment to racial justice and prison abolition. We believe Black Lives Matter: read the full statement here. We know that being anti-racist is a constant process and requires constant work, and we will always prioritize hearing the voices and experiences of those directly affected by anti-Blackness, the carceral system, and state violence. The image to the left contains work by system-impacted artists about the realities of American oppression and police brutality. We encourage you to check out more of their work in our galleries and portfolios.

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Overall, we accomplished a lot this year! Despite the uncertainties and obstacles brought about by the pandemic, we at JAC are closing out the year with much to celebrate and be grateful for, including 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. In the new year, we promise to fight even harder to support teaching artists and elevate the voices of incarcerated folk. There are a lot of exciting new projects on the way, and we can’t wait to share them with you. To bring them to life, we urgently need your help. Please consider donating either monthly or single-time as 2020 comes to a close, both to celebrate what we’ve already accomplished, and to ring in 2021.

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JAC writes to you from the traditional lands of the Nacotchtank and Piscataway peoples (Piscataway Indian Nation, the Piscataway-Conoy Confederacy, and the Cedarville Band of Piscataway), both past and present.

Mural Arts Philadelphia’s “Rendering Justice” Exhibition: Spotlight on Featured Artist Michelle Daniel Jones

by Isa Berliner, JAC Intern

We are excited to share the virtual Rendering Justice exhibition from Mural Arts Philadelphia, in partnership with the African American Museum in Philadelphia. Curated by artist Jesse Krimes, Rendering Justice is an expansive examination of mass incarceration and an unflinching depiction of contemporary America. The artworks are part of Mural Arts Philadelphia’s Reimagining Reentry program, which supports formerly incarcerated artists in the creation of public art projects. Works included feature varied responses to the displacement of bodies and revocation of autonomy entailed in incarceration. The works affirm how artists maintain a sense of identity, regain their agency, and grapple with coercive forces until — and after — they reenter society.

The exhibition features a cohort of nine artists from across the country whose work highlights a broad range of issues bound in mass incarceration, with a particular focus on Philadelphia. While the number of people jailed and imprisoned by Philadelphia’s criminal justice system has declined dramatically in recent years, the city remains one of the most heavily incarcerated in the nation. Rendering Justice can be seen here through January 3rd, so don’t miss the chance to experience this powerful exhibit! 

JAC had the opportunity to talk with Michelle Daniel Jones, one of the featured artists, to learn more about her story and her mural project Point of Triangulation, made in collaboration with Deborah Willis.


Michelle Daniel Jones

When Michelle Daniel Jones took a class with Deborah Willis at NYU, she never imagined she would soon be inviting her professor to help bring a project to life. Michelle thought Professor Willis’ class was amazing in so many ways, teaching her to look differently at familiar texts and see pictures and photography in a new light. She was especially impacted by their discussions of Frederick Douglass, explaining how “I knew Frederick Douglass was an amazing writer, I knew he was an amazing speaker, I knew he was an amazing advocate for formerly enslaved people, but I didn’t know he was into pictures. And I didn’t know how much he believed that pictures could change narratives.” Professor Willis gave Michelle a whole new take on things she used to take for granted, teaching her to think about why Douglass took so many pictures of himself, what he was trying to do with that message, and what he believed was possible through photography.

Michelle was inspired to ask that same question for people who are formerly incarcerated: “Could photography change the way in which we are viewed as formerly incarcerated people?” And so was born the inspiration for Point of Triangulation. But before it became the project you can view today, Michelle used the idea for her final paper in Professor Willis’ class. Michelle had read and written a lot about stigma and was interested in exploring the “afterlife of formerly incarcerated people” and how they can navigate the stigma and stereotypes that follow them around. Michelle’s paper, “Photography, Weaponized Stigma and the Formerly Incarcerated,” can be read here

Michelle first learned about the SOZE Right of Return Fellowship while she was still incarcerated. Though at first she was not confident about applying, she decided to convert her final paper from Professor Willis’ class (which already included a project proposal) into a formal proposal for the fellowship. When she got in, she was given the opportunity to turn the idea into reality at the NYU Gallatin Gallery. 

Michelle was soon contacted about doing a similar project with Mural Arts Philadelphia. This felt like a whole new level to Michelle. “Philadelphia is covered with thousands of murals. That’s who they are. They put their beliefs, their challenges there’s a beautiful history   and they put them on the walls all over the city.” So Michelle was determined to create a version of her project that could really speak to the city. The first thing she did was consider who she would be photographing and featuring in her project. “I wanted to make sure that the people in the Philly show were leaders, and were leading the way for other formerly incarcerated people — guiding and teaching. I wanted to be sure that I had men and women, and gender nonconforming, and transgender. I wanted to make sure I had people who represent the world, but also represent Philly specifically.”

Deborah Willis, Ph.D

When Mural Arts first reached out to Michelle about the project, she was immediately worried about finding a photographer: “I am not a trained photographer and I needed somebody who could get deeper. You can just take a picture of someone but there are people who are able to get at the heart of the individual, pull out the soul through the eyes. They will do more than just take a picture of a person, and I wanted someone to do that.” Mural Arts knew Deborah Willis had been Michelle’s professor and told her that Willis was actually born and raised in Philly, suggesting they collaborate. Unsurprisingly, Michelle was extremely nervous to contact her professor, who was also an internationally known artist and photographer. One day, she finally summoned the courage and picked up the phone. Having already read Michelle’s original paper, Willis understood the project. In Michelle’s words, “it was another way for her to work with a student who is actualizing her research and ideas… So it really became something that she could walk along with me on, and I was very excited about that. So she did!” Michelle expressed how honored she was to work with Professor Willis, who she respects tremendously as a professor, but also just as an amazing person on the planet. 

In the summer of 2019, Deborah Willis joined Michelle in Philadelphia. Before taking the photos, Michelle met with everyone she wanted to feature, going all over Philly to talk with them. She interviewed 8 people in 2 days, riding all around the city in a Lyft. It was important to Michelle that she sit with each person in a space they felt comfortable, taking the time to learn about them in a real and meaningful way. On the day of the photoshoots, Michelle organized the posing and stature, constantly talking to the people who were being photographed, asking questions about who they are and what they believe: “give us those eyes! I was really just trying to pull out of them that strength, which is exciting.” Michelle recalls that day with fondness, describing how she was running around, hurrying people back and forth to stay on schedule, making sure they looked good and felt good about what they had on, doing hair, and just making sure everything went as smoothly as possible.

Point of Triangulation “challenges the average human being to confront the stigma that they create, produce, and often weaponize against formerly incarcerated people.” The photographs create a triangle. On one side there is a photograph of a human being who is dressed in carceral clothing, looking directly at you the viewer. The second side juxtaposes a photograph of that same human being looking directly at you, but wearing their clothing of empowerment, “feeling their full selves in their bodies.” A red line drawn on the ground forms the third side, where you, the observer, complete the triangle. “With direct eye contact they’re asking: will you weaponize stigma against them now that you know they’re formally incarcerated?”

“What we are seeing is that when people know someone is formerly incarcerated they choose to lock that human being out of access, resources and opportunities. They choose to limit their capacity to create wealth, limit their capacity to reunite with their children, limit and eliminate their capacity to have a home, and the list goes on and on.” 

Michelle conceptualizes her project in two parts. The first part is about the observer confronting their own role in perpetuating stigma and the second part is designed to show “the beauty and the diversity and the style and the swag and the confidence” of these people who have been impacted by the criminal justice system. It’s about “who these people are and seeing them as people.” The project is a multimedia, immersive experience. You see the beautiful photos, you see text on the floor and walls, and you hear audio clips of people speaking their truth to you. All of these elements can be seen in the virtual version of the exhibit. 

Michelle hopes audiences will understand that these issues are not something outside themselves: “Everyone has stepped in this. Every single individual, they have a belief about incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people. And the stance that they take, particularly the negative stance, has an impact well beyond them and well beyond their own personal beliefs. It feeds into the cultural identity of our community and activates the social consequences of criminal convictions.” Michelle hopes Point of Triangulation will motivate people to “check themselves,” and see the project as an opportunity to reflect upon their beliefs and actions towards formally incarcerated people.

 “I really want everyone to recognize we do this. We make stigma, we produce it. And then, when it actually stops a formerly incarcerated person from moving forward from the past, when it drags stigma behind them, and weaponizes stigma behind them, then they’re stuck in criminality.”

Michelle points out that people say you should just be able to “pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” but when you’re “literally dragging tons of stigma behind you,” it’s much more of a challenge to pull yourself up. The goal of Point of Triangulation is to encourage people to reflect and do a check: “to think and do differently, to recognize that they are part of the problem.”

View Point of Triangulation here and view a virtual tour of Rendering Justice here

JAC needs your support!

Dear JAC Community,

As we approach the end of this incredibly challenging year, I am filled with gratitude for everyone who has supported our work and all of the wonderful members of the Justice Arts Coalition’s community. On behalf of our team of volunteers and interns, thank you for partnering with us to unite teaching artists, advocates, and currently and formerly incarcerated artists to reimagine justice through the arts.

2020 has been a painful, trying year for so many of us, and that has been especially true for the incarcerated artists in our community. In prisons across the country, lockdowns are unending; families are unable to visit their loved ones; programming is cancelled indefinitely; and the fear, grief, and loss of the pandemic is particularly acute in a carceral system characterized by overcrowding and lack of access to medical care.

As you can see in the highlights listed below, our volunteers and interns have stretched their capacity to meet the needs of our community, processing and responding to thousands of letters from artists inside, managing all aspects of our online communications, running our programs and events, and fostering connection between artists and advocates across the country.

We hear every day – from teaching artists, incarcerated artists, their loved ones – just how vital our work is on an individual, interpersonal, and systemic level. We have never believed more deeply in the transformative power of the arts and human connection to change our world.

But JAC is at a crossroads, and this letter is both a celebration and a heart-centered request for your help.

We are needed more now than ever, yet we can not keep going, let alone expand in the ways we are being called to, without significant financial support from our community. JAC can no longer run on volunteer power alone.

I wish I could confidently say that one grant, or one donor could swoop in and change things for JAC. But that just is not true. Our sustainability depends on the ongoing investment of the community we have worked so hard to nurture and nourish.

Holiday card, hand-painted for JAC by Greg Raynard

In these times of increased isolation and uncertainty, our mission has taken on a new urgency. We have been striving to meet the needs of our community by providing opportunities for connection, healing, artistic expression, and for building and sustaining community. Since the pandemic began in March of this year, JAC has:

  • Hosted bi-montly online ArtLinks events, where volunteers write personalized letters responding to incarcerated JAC artists’ work
  • Launched CorrespondARTS, a brand new, distance-learning arts program for women at the Maryland Correctional Institution 
  • Strengthened our JAC community and coalition through weekly gatherings of teaching artists from across the U.S., Canada, and Puerto Rico
  • Hosted more than 40 online workshops facilitated by teaching artists in our network
  • Paired nearly 100 incarcerated artists with artists outside through our pARTner project
  • Facilitated exhibition and publishing opportunities for dozens of incarcerated artists through partner organizations like MoMA PS1 and PEN America’s Prison and Justice Writing Program

For 2021, we are planning a national conference exploring the intersections of arts and justice, deepening our partnerships with artists, arts organizations, and advocates, and continuing to innovate in how we center system-impacted artists.

JustUs, Gregory Bolden

You can make the biggest impact by committing to a monthly donation to JAC. It will serve as a reminder to us that our community is behind us, and it will help us to show institutional funders that there is a groundswell of commitment — that our work matters, because the people in our communities matter.  We would love to have 100 new monthly donors to kick off 2021. Please consider joining us. Of course, single donations for 2020 are welcome as well. Contribute in whatever way and however much feels meaningful to you. No matter what, it will make a difference and be deeply appreciated.

With your support we can finally pay staff to manage our programs, and secure a physical space to anchor our work and safely store and display the hundreds of pieces of artwork so courageously entrusted to us by artists inside. 

Thank you for reading this far, for giving to JAC in so many ways in 2020, and for helping to make our work sustainable in the new year. May it be one of greater ease, connectedness, and abundance for us all.

With gratitude and love,

Wendy Jason, Founding Director

Please make your monthly or single donation by clicking HERE.

Your donation through our fiscal sponsor, The William James Association, is 100% tax deductible. 

“I am still in a state of disbelief at how people respond to my art. Whenever I sit down to paint with my junky paintbrush and pen ink I’m transported out of this cell and am totally consumed with filling that piece of paper full of my emotions, my stress, anxiety, fear, love, etc. I’m able to let it all out with each little stroke and it never fails to surprise me when I’m finished at how cool it comes out. I’m completely in love with painting. Thank you for allowing me to “set free” each portrait I do…I like to think that just because I’m in here it doesn’t mean they have to be as well.” — Chad
“…while I know that I can’t try to express how much you mean to me as a group, I want you to know that you have been a complete blessing to my family, particularly my mother. I am a mama’s boy, no doubt, and when you say you connect with inmates and their families, you mean it. Let it be said of the JAC…they are a picture of integrity.”  –Josh

Artist Spotlight: Reginald Dwayne Betts

by Melissa Wang, JAC Intern

“I started reading poetry in a cell in solitary confinement,” writes Reginald Dwayne Betts to the Justice Arts Coalition. Now an award-winning poet and Ph.D candidate in Law at Yale Law School, Betts began his poetic practice in prison.

Reginald Dwayne Betts.

As a sixteen-year-old, Betts was sentenced to nine years in prison for a carjacking – and it was there, “steeped in despair,” that he began “finding a language, varied and complicated and rich” to carry his imagination to his future. Betts is hesitant to slap a label on art, to glorify it as a unique form of salvation for all. Instead, he points to the individuality of art, the way poetry took him as a teenager outside of the four walls of his cell and allowed him to build possibility. “I don’t want to lift up poetry,” he says, “but rather I want to remember poetry.” Truthfully, as much as art can be a community process, it is also deeply personal.

“Art ends up being about what the writing or reading or witnessing does to you internally.”

Cover of Felon.

Art is consummation between each individual viewer and creator, and Betts highlights the role of the witness – or the reader – in realizing the significance of a work of art. In his 2019 anthology, Felon, he marries his professions as lawyer and as poet to create redaction poems from legal documents. Rather than the poem itself doing the work of blurring boundaries, however, he writes that “readers deserve far more credit than they get. They make the work matter, and they deepen the work by their engagement.” If the reader is willing to explore Betts’s legal background and the meaning of the redaction poems, they add to the value of the work. Comparatively, the isolation of prison creates a dearth of feedback and readership for incarcerated artists – just one reason why incarcerated artists must have their work shared and responded to.

These days, Betts enjoys Basquiat’s show at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, as well as the work of Titus Kaphar, with who he is collaborating for theMillion Book Project. The project is producing a curated 500-book capsule collection that will be placed in 1000 prisons in 50 states, sponsored by Yale Law School and a grant from the Mellon Foundation. All his inspiration for the project, says Betts, “comes from being a sixteen-year-old in prison,” along with countless moments over time with various books and writers. For him, words become “a kind of codex and map for life,” and these 500 books are meant to represent the idiosyncrasies of human life and all the diversity that entails. Consequently, the curation of these books is an ongoing and evolving process.

Kaphar, one of Betts’s friends, will be constructing a bookshelf for the project. Kaphar’s art, says Betts, reminds him to be capacious in artmaking and communicating the world. The ways in which they influence each other, however, aren’t just derivative of their artistry, but rather the same way friends influence one another. The conversations between their work evoke their connection as individuals, as ordinary people who hang out and chat and spend time together. Although the arguments of their artwork take different forms, Betts praises Kaphar’s body of work as “brilliantly inventive” and “visually hypnotic.” Thinking back to the Basquiat exhibition, Betts says that while Basquiat introduces him to a world he “didn’t know existed,” Kaphar makes him “reconsider a world” he knows well. These are just a couple of ways engaging with art, whether through creation or witness, serves to alter one’s world.

Art is worldbuilding in a place that fights to limits your world to four walls – the stretch of creative expression can not only help name current realities but also take you to a place away from harm.

“I want to believe that art gives a person understanding, and imagination gives us a vehicle to witness something other than ourselves.”


To learn more about the Million Book Project, check out Yale Law School’s page or the Mellon Foundation’s page.
You can view or buy Betts’s work on his website