My Block. 

by Annabel Manning

On the last day of my Hine Fellowship, the Men’s Empowerment Program (MEP) interns at the Harlem Community Justice Center (HCJC) had the opportunity to experience the power of creating their own art exhibition while drawing public attention during their graduation. MEP is a new program designed to create a safe space for men of color, ages 18-25, through placemaking, community advocacy and involvement, employment, and career/educational counseling.

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They created still and video/audio collages of their neighborhood blocks, inspired by Romare Bearden’s work in Harlem decades earlier. Each intern said a few words at the opening about their visions of their neighborhood blocks, interrogating concepts of belonging, community, self, and identity. Several expressed their excitement at being recognized as artists, often for the first time in their lives.

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Our plan is to mount the digitized versions of the block pieces on fencing surrounding an area of the Wagner public housing development in East Harlem, once construction for the community hub, organized by the Justice Center’s Mayor’s Action Plan for Neighborhood Safety, is complete.

I am also working collaboratively on a series called “a self of my former shadow,” a phrase from the poetry of Evie Shockley. The idea is that the activity of art transforms a person into a self (with agency), free from being a mere shadow of his/her future self. The new series includes images from the HCJC MEP group below, but also extends to works from other projects I have been working on.

Interns reconnected at their art opening with artist Pastor Isaac Scott, who came in a prior week on my invitation to meet with the MEP interns, and who is an important role model and resource for them going forward. Pastor Scott is a previously incarcerated artist from the East Harlem community and Program Director (and Founder) of “The Confined Arts,” as well as the Arts and Communications Coordinator at the Center for Justice, Columbia University, where he is also a student.

For the past several months a group of us, including Pastor Isaac Scott, Center for Institutional and Social Change at Columbia Law School, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, the Broadway Advocacy Coalition, and others have been organizing the Prison Art + Aesthetics Project (PAAP), an 18-month series of symposia, art exhibitions, poetry readings, plays, concerts, and other art events focused on the transdisciplinary aesthetics of prison art in the U.S. and elsewhere. All events will be centered on the lived experiences, art, and spiritual empowerment of people presently and formerly incarcerated along with their impacted families and communities. Youth involved in MEP and in other HCJC programs will be welcome as participants in PAAP.

PAAP will explore the roles of prison art and aesthetics in four overlapping areas:
before prison (e.g., education, social support, employment);
during prison (e.g., art programs, independent art activities, educational programs);
after prison (e.g., reentry/reintegration, parole, voting);
beyond prison (e.g., alternatives to incarceration, restorative models of justice and abolition).

As part of PAAP, I am proposing to organize an exhibit of art around incarceration that will include the artworks of HCJC-MEP participants along with other artists at Cathedral of St John the Divine. Our inaugural event will be on September 25-26, 2020, at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.

About the guest contributor:

Born in Mexico and raised there and in South America, Annabel Manning’s role as a social- practice artist is shaped by the needs of the communities with whom she collaborates to find ways for individuals to represent themselves, whether in jails, restorative justice centers, pre- schools, schools, hospitals, or art centers. In 2011, she helped to create a Spanish-language “Jail Arts Initiative” at two Charlotte-Mecklenburg County (NC) Jails in collaboration with the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art and the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office. For the past four years, she organized, with ArtsPlus in Charlotte (NC), a bilingual art and literacy program for Latinx families and their preschooler children.

Annabel uses photography, printmaking, painting, poetry, audio, and other tools in collaboration with individuals to express their experiences with economic and physical hardships as they struggle for recognition, respect, and rights in society.

Currently, she is a Duke University Lewis Hine Fellow working at the Harlem Community Justice Center. As part of this fellowship, Annabel is developing art projects with the Justice Center’s Men’s Empowerment Program (MEP), which works with young men of color between the ages of 18-24. In addition to creating self-portrait monoprints, they are creating audio collages based on photography, videography, and audio, around Romare Bearden’s concept of “The Block.” Ultimately, MEP hopes to digitize the blocks and install them on fencing surrounding an area of the Wagner public housing development where the Justice Center’s Mayor’s Action Plan for Neighborhood Safety is planning to create a community hub.

Annabel Manning
Duke University, Lewis Hine Fellow
Harlem Communiy Justice Center
annabelmanning.com
https://www.instagram.com/annabelfmanning/
https://www.instagram.com/mep_nyc/

Announcing the launch of the JAC Community Survey!

The Justice Arts Coalition, with the support of two graduate students from the George Washington University, is conducting a comprehensive evaluation of its programming. As part of this process, we are asking for members of the JAC community to complete a brief survey about their experiences with JAC activities. If you have participated in our programs, made use of the resources on our website, been in contact with our team, or stayed connected via social media, we welcome your participation. Your feedback will be used to help inform and strengthen our programs moving forward.

While we hope many of you will choose to complete the survey, participation is completely optional, and there are no negative consequences for choosing not to participate. Those who do participate can also choose to leave individual questions blank, and any information provided will be completely anonymized, and reported through averages, rather than individually.

If you do choose to participate, we ask that you please complete this online survey by March 21st.

Thank you very much for your feedback and support of the Justice Arts Coalition!

To My Big Sis, Judith Tannenbaum, from Spoon Jackson

by Spoon Jackson

My love for my mentor and big sis, Judith. I know death is rising over the mountains, slowly, and the pain must be enormous. Yet Judith finds and creates beauty and peace even in the midst of a hurricane. She transforms in the middle of death. Judith has been dealing with great physical and mental pain all of her life, and yet she is like a birthing star, always growing and sending out and being love. I don’t know what my world will be without her, hollow and empty. 

But it’s not about me, and I am sure she left some of her heart and spirit inside each of us— a shining light in darkness. Judith’s curiosity and loyalty is unmatched even by goddesses or gods. If she believed in you, she inspired you to be yourself and change the world, if only the small world you knew. She lies there holding hands with death, and yet no bitterness enters her heart, and joy fills her spirit. She has made everyone better by her presence and walk in this life, and Judith’s love and magic live on in all of us who knew her and were and still are blessed by her.

Judith, you left no one behind because we all go with you and you with us! I love you, Big Sis.

Judith and Spoon at the CA Men’s Colony in the 1980s

Today I spoke to Judith for

the last time.

She is the bravest person I know

to keep being Judith

despite the tremendous pain

cutting at her body.

 

She said her time is close 

to gone and reminded me

to write something

knowing already that I would.

 

She is my mentor and big sis,

and one of my best friends ever.

 

She inspired and saw in me things

I would have never seen in myself.

I grew wings because of her.

Our spirits and hearts and our love

were linked from the beginning.

 

Even in our silence—you like

Mr. Samuel Beckett—we treasured

our silence.

 

I missed you long before

you were gone.

We will meet again long

across time and space

beyond dreams and boundaries.

 

December 3 and 4, no word from Judith and I keep trying to call. Anja received an email saying death is very close, so I picked up the frequency of my calls, and we connected briefly and expressed our love. Yesterday, I got a card from Judith, and she said it was a prayer she read or recited each time she went into San Quentin.

I knew she was gone three days before Anja tried to tell me over the phone. I asked her not to say those words, and I had to leave the phone because what I already knew in silence became too strong. I tried to get away and went outside and had nowhere to go—no place to hide my tears—and a stormy dark sky betrayed me and did not rain. It had been raining for two days. Judith Tannenbaum, my mentor and big sister—I did not get to hug and say so long—I’ll see you some other time and space over there where loved ones go. Another dimension beyond dreams, darkness and light. I missed you already even before you were gone. I’ll be free someday too, and we will fly together—someday, Big Sis. We wanted to do poetry on stage together. I love you.

I knew Judith

was physically gone

yet I called her number

and let the phone ring anyways

knowing no one would pick up.

It would take decades of rain

for my tears to be unseen.

 

There is not enough rain

to hold my pain,

not enough rain

to hide the pain

of my not being there.

 

You were always there

like an ancient redwood.

You told me you lay

on the floor

and found solace

from a radio show

in New Orleans,

radio that took you away

from the pain.

I should have been beside you

on the floor listening.

I should have been beside you

on long walks or hikes up Mt. Tam.

 

I should have been beside you

on stage, going back and forth

reading poetry.

 

I should have been beside you

because.

Click here to order a copy of Spoon and Judith’s memoir, By Heart: Poetry, Prison, and Two Lives. 

About the guest contributor:

“I’ve found my niche in life despite being in prison for 42 years. I have found that prisons are created internally and are truly found everywhere. I have also discovered that the secrets to break down prison walls are inside each person and I treasure sharing this realness with people. I keep my light glowing through expressing my inner thoughts, vibes and feelings in my poetry and prose writing. Peace/Spoon”

If you would like to connect with Spoon, send a letter to:

Spoon Jackson B92377, CSP-Solano, C 13-19-1, L., PO Box 4000, Vacaville, CA 95696/4000, USA

Visit Spoon’s website to read more of his poetry. JAC is honored that Spoon has agreed to serve as a member of our Advisory Council.

 

Beginnings

by Jeremy Sobek

Jeremy Sobek

I remember how I felt the first time I knew I was going to be an artist, I was in fourth grade, my teacher’s name was Mr. D. It was Halloween and the entire class was making paper plate masks as part of a contest. I had no cares for the contest, though. I was too absorbed in what I was creating. 

The night before, I begged my oldest brother to draw something scary on a paper plate. He was a pretty good artist, so my intentions were to present whatever my brother drew. After minutes of pestering he finally drew the face of a werewolf, blood dripping down sharp teeth. I was amazed. I remember going to bed late because I couldn’t stop staring at my werewolf paper plate mask.

The next day in class all the students were pulling out their masks adding last minute decorations of scariness. I grabbed a new paper plate from Mr. D and pulled out the mask my brother made. I started copying the werewolf onto my new paper plate and was extremely happy with the result. So I drew it again and again, probably ten times that morning feeling joy every time I started over.

From then on art became my everyday life. Instead of going to play basketball with my brothers I would be sitting in my room drawing. A few years later, 1997 to be exact, a cousin of mine came over one afternoon to hang out. He had no idea I was into drawing. A few of my scrap papers had on them two tags that I would write over and over, Devs and Vex, and they were high up on a building in my neighborhood. My cousin saw my copies and told me who the guys were and explained this game called graffiti. I was instantly hooked and haven’t stopped writing since. 

I have had some hard times in life and creating art has been the one positive act that has saved me. I was a gang involved youth, shot at, sliced with knives, was part of massive gang fights, racially profiled and harassed. At 13 years old my main focus besides art was to make it to see 18 years of age.

In 2013 I was the cause of a horrific accident involving a firearm that almost took the life of a loved one. I was arrested and spent the next two years in and out of court on bail, finally taking a plea. I served 2 ½  years. The hardest part of that experience was having to leave my son and hurting someone I truly cared about. 

I spent my time at the South Bay Corrections Facility. The first month I was completely depressed. I spoke to no one, barely ate and I slept most of the day. For whatever reason I decided to hang outside the cell one morning for rec. I noticed a couple of guys standing over this man who was drawing, without thought I went and sat down at the table. The man was drawing, in blue pen, a lion with a crown. We spoke briefly and before the rec was over I asked for a few pieces of paper and a pen. From then on I drew. The inmates became my clients and I drew tons of portraits, angels, teddy bears, hearts, skulls and graffiti. I also wrote poetry. I joined an essay writing class and was reintroduced to a lost passion. 

I realized the power of my art when I saw inmates smiling as they explained the images I drew  to their friends. Some would quietly go right to their cell, sit on their bed and stare at my work for minutes at a time. I wondered what memory they thought of as they sat in silence. Even correction officers would comment, “ Pretty good work, [Sobek],” as they raided my cell. 

The inmates encouraged me to do more with my art, for them and for myself. I wanted to create a business. Upon my release I decided to do whatever I must to accomplish my artistic goals. Since my release I have been part of  a documentary called ‘The Free Walls’, working closely with Olivia Huang and the Cambridge Arts Council. I was commissioned by Jamaica Plains Development Neighborhood Corp to create a mural with the residents at 75 Amory St. I’ve been a part of numerous art shows and hosted my own. I have been asked to participate in a street art documentary as one of the main artists with knowledge of Boston graffiti.

Although I believe this to be a significant resume since my release, I have yet to be accepted as a serious artist in the art world. I have been denied by a few of the organizations that sponsor large scale murals in Massachusetts. My determination to create on a larger scale led me to create my ‘Back Against The Wall’ initiative with the goal of bringing legal street art to Dorchester/Mattapan, my birth place. The art scene in Boston is unbalanced with most of the colorful and experimental street art happening in the wealthier parts of the city. I’m the product and proof that something beautiful can flourish in the dirtiest of places. 

“Take the art farther than where you found it,” I heard a man say in a documentary about Black music and arts. I say this phrase every day, for it leaves me with no choice but to see my goals through. I’m obligated to teach my son his family history and the history of all people of color. I’m obligated to speak on social justice, prejudices and inequalities because I’ve been subject to them. My power is my art and I will do what I must to take it farther than where I found it.

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For more about Jeremy and his current projects:

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=4Df-0CVEgzE&feature=share

https://abovethefreewalls.yolasite.com/

https://vimeo.com/218394030

https://www.cctvcambridge.org/node/682700

Support Jeremy’s City as Canvas: Above the Free Walls project here!