Nate Fish: Brick of Gold

JAC recently spoke with Nate Fish, founder of the Brick of Gold Publishing Company. Brick of Gold publishes the art and writing of incarcerated people and offers art, copy, direction, design, video, and print services. Since 2016, they’ve published three books containing work from incarcerated artists. 

Words Uncaged, 128-G: Art and Writing from a California State Prison is Brick of Gold’s most recent book, a collection of art and writing from inmates at Calipatria State Prison in Southern California. “What you have in your hands is not only a collection of art but a collection of voices,” says Joel Baptiste, one of the inmates. “[We] have amazing stories to share if you’re willing to look and listen.” 

128-G consists of scans of original artifacts from inside Calipatria – drawings on paper, napkins, and other found materials, typed and handwritten letters, birthday cards, and powerful photos from filmmaker Danny Dwyer. All the material in 128-G comes from Words Uncaged, a non-profit organization running art and writing programs in several California prisons.

JAC: How did you become involved in this work? What was your path to where you are today?

NF: I started Brick of Gold in 2016. I never intended to publish art and writing from prisoners. It was just a vanity press to publish my own work and the work of friends. But my childhood friend, Ray Adornetto, was working in prisons in California for an organization called Words Uncaged. Ray sent me the work of the prisoners, and I knew right away I was going to stop publishing myself and start publishing them instead. It was just more impactful than the work professional writers were producing, myself included. We published two collections of prison writing in 2018, and just released our third book with Words Uncaged, 128-G: Art and Writing from a California State Prison. It’s broken into the artbook circuit which was one of our goals for the book. 

JAC: In considering the work of your own organization, what is unique about the programming you have been creating?

NF: Well, first, Words Uncaged deserves the credit. They are the experts, and they are the ones going into the prisons and doing the difficult work. But as for Brick of Gold and the books we’re putting out, we are trying something a little different because we are taking artbook sensibilities to prison publishing. We are basically taking what can be interpreted as gritty, outsider work and making it into beautiful artbooks. I do not think that’s been done before. We want to challenge the art establishment to include this work in their definition of what’s important, and get the books into museum shops and artbook stores so people with resources can see it. The ultimate goal is policy change, but we think we can help move the dial that direction by presenting the work this way. It is very difficult to continue denying people their humanity and liberty once you see and read the books. 

JAC: How have your students impacted your teaching practices and even your own art or creative practices? What has been the most rewarding part of your experience working with incarcerated artists?

NF: I have been writing less and editing more. I have to read and edit and art direct the books with the designers we hire and that takes a lot of time, so I have shifted a bit from writing to curating. But I still do write and publish my own work as well. I am also a visual artist. Crafting our books has definitely sharpened my ability to conceptualize large scale projects in general. I would say though that the work of the prisoners we publish has had more of an emotional impact on me than a professional impact. They’ve taught me more about being a good person than being a good artist. 

JAC: As you know, the JAC is focused on ways in which art can connect those in the prison system with those on the outside. How has this relationship been jeopardized by COVID-19? How have you been keeping connections active during this time?

NF: Yes. Words Uncaged cannot get into prisons right now, like most organizations and individuals doing this kind of work. WU runs programs in Calipatria, Lancaster, and Donovan prisons. There are outbreaks right now in Lancaster and Donovan, and a lot of the guys we work with are very sick. I keep getting messages that Joel or Jimmy or Cory are struggling. I have never even met any of the artists whose work we publish, but I feel like I know them, and it hurts to hear they’re sick. 

JAC: As we navigate this unprecedented time across our national landscape, both concerning Covid-19 and anti-racism protests, what challenges have emerged in your work with artists, specifically those who are impacted by the criminal justice system?

NF: One of the things we’ve done as a reaction to the times is put out a call for work from prisoners specifically about race in America. We want to hear about their experiences and see what solutions they have to offer. It’s important to us that in our projects we are not learning about prisoners, but are learning from prisoners, about ourselves. It’s a bit of a flip in the power dynamic we’re used to seeing with all the voyeuristic prison docs and stuff that have been coming out for decades that sort of fetishize prison. Things are magnified in prison. Every element of life is sort of laid bare, especially when it comes to race. A lot of our guys have transitioned from racist to anti-racist and we want to hear from them how they did it. We should be releasing the book on race in America in 2021. 

JAC: The Justice Arts Coalition, as it grows, will continue to seek out and implement a vision of how to better support teaching artists. In your view, what does a supportive network need to include?

NF: The prison reform scene is awesome but fragmented. There are dozens if not hundreds of orgs working on the same thing often not even knowing about one another. You guys know that better than anyone. It would be awesome to see a unifying organization, one place where all the work lived, and we got some collective bargaining power.

JAC: As our art networks look to the future, how do you hope the pandemic, as well as this period of protest, will alter the public’s understanding of the justice system?

NF: I think the protests are more impactful than the epidemic when it comes to people examining themselves and our society. If anything, the epidemic may cause people to withdraw from thinking about the pain of others because their own resources are likely diminishing. The protests in 2020 are mostly focused on police reform. That’s great. But there was not as much talk about top to bottom reform that includes prison reform. But prison reform will inevitably come back up to the top of the news cycle at some point. It is part of the national conversation and very few things if any are as glaringly in need of reform as the prison system most people agree, even conservatives. I am not a huge fan of the word reform in general. It sounds like we need to just move the line a little bit when I think we need to move it a lot. 

JAC: What led you to JAC, and how has your experience with JAC served your own work?

NF: You guys are at the forefront of bringing awareness to prison art so it didn’t take me long to track Wendy down for a call. She’s helped me get a better understanding of prison art on a national scale, because we have only worked specifically with California Prisons. JAC has a broader reach so I can learn about when and where and how prisoners are making art all over the country because I am still pretty new to this world. 

Head to the Brick of Gold website to purchase their books and learn more about what they do. Profits from 128-G go to Words Uncaged. 

A.B.O. Comix

JAC recently spoke with Casper Cendre, co-founder and director of A.B.O. Comix. A.B.O. is a collective of creators and activists who work to amplify the voices of LGBTQ prisoners through art. By working closely with prison abolitionist and queer advocacy organizations, they aim to keep queer prisoners connected to outside community and help them in the fight toward liberation. The profits A.B.O generate go back to incarcerated artists, especially those with little to no resources. Using the DIY ideology of “punk-zine” culture, A.B.O. was formed with the philosophy of mutual support, community and friendship.

A.B.O. believes our interpersonal and societal issues can be solved without locking people in cages. Their mission is to combat the culture that treats humans as disposable and disproportionately criminalizes the most marginalized amongst us. “Through artistic activism, we hope to proliferate the idea that a better world means redefining our concepts of justice.”

 

JAC: How did you become involved in this work? What was your path to where you are today? Have your views changed since then?

CC: As a teenager, I had a difficult time connecting with my peers and making friends. Coming to terms with my queer and trans identity in high school often left me feeling alienated, misunderstood and at times, even inhuman. I found an outlet through pen-palling as it seemed easier for me to write out my thoughts than it was to speak with people in person, and in my last year of high school, I found a website you could pen-pal with folks in prison. At the time, there was only one person on the website that openly identified as LGBTQ, so I sent her a letter not knowing that to this day, she would be one of my closest and dearest friends.

Writing with her became therapeutic for the both of us – we explored our intersections of feeling alienated and inhuman together, and both ended up transitioning around the same time. I learned about what life was like for queer and transgender people in prison, and all too often the degradation, abuse, sexual assault and severe neglect that they endure. She introduced me to her friends and soon I was writing with quite a few people in different prisons. Many were artists, and I quickly had a large collection of beautiful drawings, paintings and crafts that my pen-pals had sent me.

I was enamored with the beauty and creativity that manifested in spite of the bleakness of prison life, and I felt compelled to help share this art and their stories with the world. My ever-growing family behind bars helped me start to see the beauty in this world, especially in times that seem the darkest. They have helped me realize that despite the mistakes we make in this life, each one of us (with a little help and encouragement) can blossom into the best versions of ourselves and find our paths to redemption. 

JAC: In considering the work of your own organization, what is unique about the programs you have been creating?

CC: In 2017, A.B.O. Comix was started with no road map, no long-term goals or aspirations, and no general understanding of how to become the organization that we are now. Two of my friends and I set out to publish a book with our incarcerated pen-pals and get a little bit of money into their commissary account. We hadn’t seen any comic projects like this before, and had no idea how much of a positive impact it would have.

We started this project with the change in our wallets but soon had fundraised enough to open a P.O. box and buy a used perfect binding machine to painstakingly hand press our books, one copy at a time. Our hand-drawn Call for Submissions ad in the Black and Pink newspaper had our P.O. box flooded with comic storyboards and requests for information the first week. A couple months later, we were throwing our anthology release party at Classic Cars West in Oakland, with hot glue burns on our fingers and a table of hand-screened custom t-shirts with smudged ink.

After our first anthology was published featuring the comics of our incarcerated LGBTQ friends, the trajectory of A.B.O. split into different directions. One of the co-founders no longer had the capacity to continue with the project, and our other eventually moved across the country. For several years though, I’ve found my permanent home as Director of A.B.O. Comix and couldn’t imagine a better thing to dedicate my life to.

Our one-off anthology of queer prisoner’s comics has since become a project I’ve done every year. The list of 20 queer and transgender artists we write with has since become over 250. Our modest fundraising to buy some holiday gifts for people in prison became almost $40,000 donated directly to the commissary accounts of our contributors so they can afford food, art supplies, medical co-pays, gender-affirming items, phone time and legal counsel. Hundreds of letters are written a month, multiple books, anthologies and zines have been published, and I get to dedicate my work on the daily to advocating for our all our contributors for everything from internal grievances to accessing medical care to parole letters to creating artist portfolios.

This last year we created a graphic-novel making curriculum for LGBTQ prisoners, secured our own office space and art gallery, linked up hundreds of free-world people with new pen-pals in prison, helped with re-entry support for our friends getting out of prison, formed relationships with dozens of organizations to better assist our contributors, had our publications featured in college textbooks and course curriculums, and helped introduce the world to the amazing creativity of so many of our incarcerated community members.

Our incarcerated community has helped me aspire to so much more for this coming year: to grow this into an organization that can hire on our formerly incarcerated contributors when they come home; to expand to a retail storefront where we can publicly display all of the art and publications we have collaborated on; to start up our own podcast featuring interviews with our contributors; to become a national collective that eliminates gate-keeping from the publishing industry; and help create thousands of published artists inside prison with vast more opportunities and credentials.

JAC: Have your experiences with creating in prison influenced environments influenced the way you approach your own art and projects?

CC: Although we collaborate exclusively through mail and phone-calls with our contributors in prison and I’ve met very few of our contributors in person, I’ve re-learned the power that small acts of kindness and encouragement can have on a person’s growth and mental, spiritual and psychological well-being. While many of the people we correspond with were already accomplished artists, many more had never attempted a comic before and didn’t consider themselves artists at all.

In encouraging others to try a new craft, no matter what came out of the other side of their pen, it has motivated me to try new mediums myself. Previously, I considered myself only capable of writing creatively, but I now have more faith in myself to try other things just for the fun of it. I have learned how much art can be therapy, and that it is equally about self-expression and manifesting your emotions into reality as it is about creating something lasting and visually appealing.

Our contributors encourage and motivate me every day, and I can only work as hard as humanly possible to repay the kindness.

JAC: How do you think your program affects participants? Have you felt that art influences a person’s self-image or worth, while they are incarcerated? What other impacts do you hope your organization have had on individuals, both incarcerated and not?

CC: Our contributors have become the siblings I never had, and we get each other through the hardest days and uplift & celebrate with each other on the best ones. Some of our artists have been through the darkest moments imaginable, and struggled with self-harm, mental illness, and suicidal thoughts/attempts. But now they have, maybe for the first time, a community to rely on. I have seen many people grow and gain a new sense of accomplishment.

Art is a vehicle for our contributors to express what they may not be able to in words, and becoming published artists with credentials, awards, and their work for sale in art shows has given them something they’ve never had before.  

The voices and artwork of our family in prison has reached so many people on the outside, through newspapers, podcasts, college courses and libraries. We have helped introduce the concept of prison reform and even abolition to countless people around the world, and inspired many to bridge connections and strengthen our communities. I am immensely proud of the openness and vulnerability that our friends in prison have shared with us through their stories, and hope that their work will encourage and help so many others. 

JAC: What has been the most rewarding part of your experience working with incarcerated artists and actors?

CC: The most rewarding part of my experience working with incarcerated artists has been the friendships I have gained. I have gotten the unique opportunity to get to talk with people from all different backgrounds, places of origin, ethnicities, sexualities, gender identities and ideologies. Everyone has something to teach, and everyone has something to offer, and I am humbled and honored to get to learn what they have to share.

I have learned the life stories – the mistakes and the triumphs – of mothers and fathers, military veterans, business owners, entrepreneurs, engineers, occultists, scientists, and conspiracy theorists. I have gotten the chance to befriend believers and skeptics, Democrats and Republicans (and a healthy dose of Anarchists), immigrants and those who have family lineages here as far back as they can trace…all people our justice system has written off and discarded but who have some of the most valuable life lessons every person should know.

I have gotten the opportunity to get to know these incredible people who are often so open and happy to share their stories, and found the chance to help share that knowledge with others. My friends in prison have taught me that when we know better, we can do better, and for that I hope they never stop allowing me to learn from them.

JAC: The Justice Arts Coalition, as it grows, will continue to seek out and implement a vision of how to better support teaching artists. In your view, what does a supportive network need to include? Are there any current obstacles you are trying to overcome as an organization?

CC: I was introduced to the Justice Arts Coalition at the Connecting Art & Law for Liberation festival at UCLA in 2019, when Wendy and I had the chance to sit down over drinks and talk about the passion we had for our work. Getting to see JAC grow these past few years has been so inspiring to me and an incredibly valuable resource for many of our community members that I give out probably to too many people. My partner jokes that I want to see everyone else buried under the same mountain of letters that I am. *laughs manically* I really look forward to being able to collaborate more to better support all our artists on the inside, and being a support network for each other.

Some of our greatest challenges and obstacles are keeping up with the workload. For many people in prison, there are very few resources and people they can turn to, and most organizations that do exist are overextended, beyond capacity and swamped with the amount of work that needs to be done. A.B.O. receives thousands of letters a year and we are an incredibly small team – it sometimes takes us months to get a response out to each individual. Retaining volunteers, especially during COVID, has been difficult and the workload falls disproportionately on just a few people.

I would love to see our organizations with similar goals come together to distribute the workload and create the most amount of positive change for all involved. A supportive network of organizations we could communicate & collaborate with, each playing to our own strengths, would be instrumental in supporting our artists. 

JAC: JAC is focused on ways in which art can connect those in the prison system with those on the outside. Has this relationship been jeopardized by COVID-19? How have you been keeping connections active during this time?

CC: This year has been a rough one for all of us, but especially those on the inside who have lived with the fear of never returning to their friends and loved ones, or never getting to say goodbye to those they lost. We wanted to create a project that would allow our contributors to channel their fears, anxieties and pain into something productive and beautiful, so we published a second anthology this year called Confined Before COVID-19, featuring comics, artwork, poetry and short essays about how the pandemic was affecting people in prison. We asked them to share their thoughts and experiences while COVID spread like wildfire throughout the prison system, and received dozens of submissions that we compiled into an extraordinary collection that serves as a time capsule for this difficult year.

We’ve been working extra hard to make sure we maintain correspondence and connection with all our contributors so that they know they are not alone and not given up on. We started taking calls from prisoners this year, and trained a bunch of new volunteers on letter-writing so that we’re able to chip away at our mail mountain bit by bit. I think our relationships with those on the inside has only gotten stronger this year, and our incarcerated family has more than doubled in size in 2020. 

JAC: As our art networks look to the future, how do you hope the pandemic, as well as this period of protest, will alter the public’s understanding of the justice system?

CC: Although this year has collectively been one of the most difficult of our lifetimes, it has given us an opportunity to re-evaluate what is important and what is worth fighting for. The relationships we form with our families and friends are the most critical lifeline we have, and this pandemic has given us time to pause and sort out our priorities. Here in Oakland, the street our office is on was turned into a 2 mile long gallery of protest art (which we captured in our publication, Protest Art – Broadway in Oakland: June 20 2020), bringing our community together through the power of art to have conversations about police brutality and our justice/prison systems.

These conversations are now widespread, with many people discussing these issues for the first time. Our society is learning and engaging more now than I’ve ever seen, and it’s given me a renewed sense of optimism in the power of community. I hope that the art created during this time will encourage us to be kinder to each other, uplift one another, and work towards better days for all of us.

Visit A.B.O. Comix online to learn more about their organization and their artists. Shop for books, zines, prints, apparel, and more! The profits generated go back to incarcerated artists, especially those with little to no resources.

Guest Blog: Chris Trigg

by Chris Trigg

It’s a good thing we’ve got windows or we’d never see the sun. The virus leaped the wall and settled in amongst us. Not that we were sunkissed before it crept in. We’ve been in a state of modified lockdown since march. The modified meaning we got an hour out of our cells to access 1 ten minute call. 5 cells at a time. That reduced to 30 minutes. Then twenty minutes 1 cell at a time. Then nothing. 

In the supermax where I spent years and years and then more years, meeting up with the sun was rare. We went outside 2 or 3 times a week to spend 2 hours in a cage like a dog kennel. We usually were out by 7:30 am and back in by 10 just as the sun crests the 30 foot walls to filter through the layers of fencing that caps the small patio-like area where the cages are.

Devoid of sunlight for years you begin to feel joint pain which you’ll attribute to age, or working out too much. You’ll experience drops in energy and a myriad of other effects. You’ll figure it’s just part of aging. I know I did.

When I finally left and reacquainted myself with the sun it made my skin itch. After a week or two the itch went away. The joint paint and all those attributes of age did too. After all I’m not that old. 

We evolved in the sun. We take it for granted cause we get it here, there, and everywhere. Except in the darkest corners of America. Certain prisons, that is. 

The people who run these prisons don’t know they’ve never gone months without a little sun. They likely don’t care either. I’ve traded the attempted risk reduction for the coronavirus for the regression of sunless senescence. I’ve been hearing people complain that they don’t feel right or well. Perhaps we’ve all been exposed to the coronavirus. We haven’t been tested but we pass regular temperature checks. Maybe we’re mostly too tough for covid. Hardened convicts and all. More probable is guys are beginning to feel the effects of being confined in a small space for months with no sun. 

I’d be surprised if any real studies of the effects of long term deprivation of sun on humans beings have been conducted. Long term meaning years or even decades. Why would they? Who deprives human beings of sun and air for such periods of time, right? Haven’t the courts found such deprivations a violation of the 8th amendment? To not be subjected to cruel and unusual punishment. Sure. But who cares, right? Hopefully you don’t because it’s done in your name and you pay for it. 

One thing is for sure, the virus is inside this petri dish. They had 28 guys pop up sick in one unit one day. They created a quarantine unit and started moving people. They put them in white, paper-looking jumpsuits. I see them being escorted to medical sometimes from my window. I only saw one man who appeared to be struggling to get there. Or maybe he was just walking very slow to enjoy the sun. 

Now, I bet you’re thinking that all I do is whine and paint an occasionally pretty picture. I take it in stride. I survive on optimism and imagination. I’m addressing stark realities here sometimes so I tell it like it is in case you’re interested. In case you’re listening and paying attention. No one paying attention is how we got to this current america. 

I’m gonna tough it out and keep my soul and my smile. I regret that I haven’t been able to send new art. Along with the sun, all art programs are cancelled. I have been toiling with limited resources but we can’t order supplies or mail out art still. 

I survived Hurricane Laura which put on a late night show here. I discovered the name of the coal black birds that live here. They’re called Grackles. Their song goes from car alarms to 80’s video games. They rode out the storm, too.

Everyday I get another step closer to the end of this long march. Closer to being returned to the people who love me and have endured what I’ve endured, to see an end to this era. A new beginning. I am aware that no matter what I go through, there are always people who have it a lot worse somewhere. I know as well people suffer who’ve done nothing to deserve their woe. I try to keep it in perspective. To be mindful.

Christian Trigg
You can view more of Chris’ work in his portfolio and in our galleries.

About the contributor:

“My wildlife art is my story of redemption. My desire is to demonstrate respect, compassion and love can thrive in the darkest of places… Each painting captures the animal in its authentic habitat.

I am self-taught. I have never taken a lesson. I use wildlife photography from magazines and books for my source.

I do my paintings on the floor of my cell. I am not allowed an easel, high quality paper or any medium but chalk pastels. I use my thumb to blend and soften the background. Each painting takes many hours of layering colors to highlight depth and light.”

-Christian Trigg

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.  

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