by Wendy Jason, Managing Director of the Justice Arts Coalition
On Saturday, May 25th, at Rhizome DC, the Justice Arts Coalition celebrated the opening of Becoming Free, our first exhibition of works by incarcerated artists. We were joined by nearly 125 community members, each one helping to fill the space with warmth, care, and a genuine appreciation for the six artists, their stories, and their work. Quite a few guests took the time to write notes to the artists, which I will be mailing off this week. The sense of validation and connection that comes from receiving this feedback means the world to them.
Members of the Tributary Project set the tone for the night with their infectious rhythms and gorgeous melodies, and friends from local partner organizations Free Minds Bookclub and Voices Unbarred read poetry — both their own, and pieces written by men in a writing class at a nearby prison. We screened two short films by Logan Crannell, and showed our own film, Making our Meaning — which was beautifully edited by Logan — for the first time. Much of the artwork was for sale, and each of the artists has generously offered to donate a portion of the proceeds to the JAC. Local businesses 3 Stars Brewing Co., Green Plate Catering, Mark’s Kitchen and Olive Lounge contributed everything we needed to stay well fed and hydrated, and Ecoprint donated graphic design and printing services resulting in vibrant flyers for the event and new informational brochures to have on hand. If you’re in the DC area and would like to visit the exhibit, which will be up until June 22, please contact me at email@example.com.
Check out more photos from the opening here, and please watch (and share!) the video below!
If you joined us for the opening, and have photos or videos you’re willing to share with us, we’d love to see them! Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you!
Art Exhibit: “Becoming Free” Saturday, May 25, Opening Reception from 7pm-10pm Suggested donation $10-20 at the door Art for sale!
Presented by the Justice Arts Coalition
The opening reception kicks off a month-long exhibit of works by incarcerated artists, running May 25-June 22, 2019. The event will include works by artwork by Conor Broderick, Tomás, Will Livingston, Carole Alden, D. Ashton, and Gary Harrell. Live music by the Tributary Project. Screening of select shorts by Logan Crannell. And a reading of works by poets in a local prison. Food, drinks, community. Proceeds directly benefit the artists and the launch of the Justice Arts Coalition as a 501c3 nonprofit. Please join us!
The Justice Arts Coalition unites people at the intersection of the arts and justice, cultivating community among system-involved artists, their loved ones, educators, scholars, activists, and advocates. Established in 2008 as the grassroots, volunteer-led online resource the Prison Arts Coalition, this event marks the launch of our efforts to develop JAC into 501c3 nonprofit. The JAC provides an invaluable resource, an advisory body and coalition of people who work to bring art into and out from the prison system.
For more information: Wendy Jason, email@example.com
“Prison does not define who we are as people, but instead reflects poor decisions we have made. I would ask that those who judge us to perhaps look past the blue and orange state clothes we wear, and to try to practice empathy. Please try to understand us. Please try to look past our imperfections and most importantly, try to forgive us. I believe that many inmates struggle with, yet desperately desire to express who they truly are, and the reasons are numerous. Creating art is one avenue I personally use to express myself. All of my paintings reflect either my sadness, my happiness, my dreams, my desires, my passions, or I just find them beautiful. Whatever painting of mine you may be looking at right now, please know that while you are certainly seeing a part of me, there is far more to understand and discover about me beyond the blue and orange I wear.” G. Allen, 2018
23rd Annual Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners
March 21 – April 4, 2018
Duderstadt Center Gallery
University of Michigan North Campus
2281 Bonisteel Blvd., Ann Arbor, MI 48109
The Annual Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners is one of the largest exhibitions of art by incarcerated artists in the country. Each year, faculty, staff and students from the University of Michigan travel to correctional facilities across Michigan and select work for the exhibition while providing feedback and critique that strengthens artist’s work and builds community around making art inside prisons.
The 23rd Annual Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners is supported by the Michigan Council for the Arts and Cultural Affairs, University of Michigan Office of the Provost; College of Literature, Science, and the Arts; School of Music, Theatre & Dance; Stamps School of Art and Design; Residential College.
Exhibition hours are 12pm-6pm Sunday and Monday; 10am-7pm Tuesday through Saturday. The gallery will be closed April 1.
Opening Events, 23rd Annual Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners
Wednesday, March 21, 2018
Duderstadt Center Gallery
Celebrate the opening day of the 23rd Annual Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners. Gallery opens at 10am. Sales begin at 6 pm. Opening Reception will begin at 7 pm, with guest speakers from the University of Michigan, the Michigan Department of Corrections, and artists from previous exhibitions.
Keene Theatre Performance with Friends from Brazil
Friday, March 23, 2018 from 7 to 8 pm
Keene Theatre, Residential College, East Quad
Join PCAP as we welcome visitors from the theatre departments of two universities in Brazil, UDESC in Florianópolis and UniRio in Rio de Janeiro. Students and faculty from both universities host a group of PCAP students and Prof. Ashley Lucas each summer as part of our ongoing exchange program. Our friends from Brazil will perform various short pieces of theatre, dance, and music in the Keene Theatre as a way to share some of their phenomenal performance work with us.
Artists’ Panel, 23rd Annual Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners
Sunday, March 25, 2018, 11am – 12:30pm
Duderstadt Center Gallery
Artists from previous Prison Creative Arts Project exhibitions share their stories and answer questions about life as a prison artist in this informal panel discussion, moderated by Professor Emerita Janie Paul.
The 10th Anniversary Edition, Michigan Review of Prisoner Creative Writing Volume 10, Ann Arbor Reading
Sunday, March 25, 2018, 4pm – 6pm
East Room, near the Duderstadt Gallery – North Campus
Hear selections from this year’s 10th anniversary special edition, read by family and friends of contributing authors. Books will be for sale. Cosponsored by LSA Residential College, LSA Department of English Language and Literature, and the Jackson Social Justice Fund of Unitarian Universalist Congregation, Ann Arbor
PCAP’s Michigan Review of Prisoner Creative Writing seeks to showcase the talent and diversity of Michigan’s incarcerated writers. The review features writing from both beginning and experienced writers – writing that comes from the heart, and that is unique, well-crafted, and lively.
Maine Inside Out Performance
Wednesday, March 28, 2018, 6:30-8pm
Keene Theatre, Residential College, East Quad, Room B-141
Maine Inside Out (MIO) artists facilitate the creation of original theatre to engage the community in dialogue about issues related to incarceration. Chiara Libertore, one of Professor Emeritus William “Buzz” Alexander’s first students (LSA English Language and Literature) in what would become the Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP), co-founded the MIO non-profit in 2007. MIO provides year round voluntary theatre workshops for more than half of the young people at Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland, Maine. Its reintegration program for newly-released Maine Inside Out participants includes weekly community groups, mentoring, and transitional employment opportunities for youth in three Maine communities that incarcerate the highest number of young people.
MIO’s transformative justice curriculum includes a new original production created by young adult artists debuting in 2017. Join us for a public performance and dialogue in the Residential College’s Keene Theatre.
Keynote: “Voices from the Abyss: Twenty Years of Journalism with the Angolite Magazine,” Kerry Myers
Thursday, March 29, 2018, 7pm-9pm
Duderstadt Center Gallery
Kerry Myers grew up in a small town suburb of New Orleans. He holds a B.A. in Communications and Journalism. In 1990, he was sentenced to life without parole. Kerry served his time in the Louisiana State
Penitentiary, know famously as Angola. In 1996, Wilbert Rideau, the incarcerated editor of the prison’s news magazine The Angolite, recruited Myers to write for the publication. In June 2001, when Rideau left prison, Myers became only the second editor of The Angolite in the previous 25 years. Under his guidance, the magazine reported on the death penalty with a depth and clarity that was recognized with the Thurgood Marshall Journalism Award in 2007, the first of many honors and awards.
Taking on subjects like human trafficking, juvenile life without parole, aging, Alzheimer’s and dementia in prison, sentencing, pardons and parole policy and more, Myers guided the magazine as it became a resource for many top criminal justice and law programs in the US. In 2011 and 2012, Myers wrote a critically acclaimed series on the history of women in the Louisiana penal system, from Pre-Civil War to the present. In December 2016, Governor John Bel Edwards signed Myer’s second unanimous commutation of sentence, recommended by the Board of Pardons and Parole. Since that time, Myers has been working as a free-lance journalist and photographer, and is active in criminal justice reform in Louisiana, leading a wave of change in the state.
Michigan Art for Justice Forum
Tuesday, April 3, 2018, 9am-5pm in the Rogel Ballrom, Michigan Union Reception 5:30-7pm in Duderstadt Center Gallery
In partnership with the California Lawyers for the Arts, Shakespeare Behind Bars, Creative Many, and the Art for Justice Fund, we are hosting the Michigan Art for Justice Forum. This all-day symposium will bring together lawmakers, artists, scholars, and formerly incarcerated people to discuss the necessity of arts programming in the criminal justice system. This forum is part of series of six forums happening in six states: Michigan, Texas, Alabama, Georgia, New York, and California. For more information, please send an inquiry to firstname.lastname@example.org. Reception to follow, featuring a performance by Wayne Kramer.
Artwork Pickup, 23rd Annual Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners
Wednesday, April 4, 2018, 6pm-8pm Thursday, April 5, 2018, 10am-4pm
Duderstadt Center Gallery
Please bring your proof of purchase or your letter from PCAP if the work was not for sale. Volunteers will be available to help locate and package your artwork. Artwork selected for the Award Winners and Selected Work exhibit will be available in July. Art is not available for sale during artwork pickup times.
PAC asked Reno Angelo Leplat-Torti, an artist and curator of exhibitions of Chicano prison art in France, to tell us a bit about himself, how his interest in prison art developed, and what kind of impact his exhibitions are having.
My name is Reno Angelo Leplat-Torti. I was born in France, but my family emigrated from Italy in the 40’s. I studied art, and then I became an assistant in two different art schools’ silkscreen workshops. I created my own publishing house 10 years ago, and I’m also organizing a big alternative comic festival in France. I’m trying to keep my own “artistic practice” in the midst of all that.
I’ve been interested in “folk art” and in what French speakers call Art Brut (“outsider art”) since my early artistic beginning. As a teenager I was a bookshop rat, and I started to read underground comics like Le Dernier Cri publications. There, I discovered the raw drawings of Stu Mead, Mattt Konture, Moolinex, GaryPanter, Henry Darger and Raymond Reynaud…I began to draw my own comics, found my passion, and began to pursue my own path as an artist by entering art school.
I have always been interested in autodidact art, and discovered prison art while I was looking for prison-made objects like tattoo machines, knives, etc. My first find was a Mickey Mouse hankie, or paño, which I framed. Over time my collection of paños began to grow, and one day a friend with an art space asked if I’d like to exhibit them.
When I’m setting up my exhibition, I really see the wall as an expression of emotions. I feel paños art is something more intimate than a classic prison drawing, more personal. They are windows into a pinto’s heart, and viewing them can feel intimate, almost indecent, like reading a letter belonging to someone else, but the letter is so well written you can’t stop until the end – like the shame you can feel in reading the correspondence between Simone de Beauvoir and Nelson Algren.
Paños art is so interesting to me because of the different dimensions it represents. First, this form has connections to Chicano art, tattoo art, and religious art. But also this art form is a prime example of “making the most of what you have” – the artists are cutting up their pillows and bedsheets, and drawing with whatever they can find inside. It’s not always a technical challenge – the pintos (Chicano slang for “convict”) are not always excellent drawers – but they have time and they put their heart, their soul and their guts in it. And finally the content, the prison hankies are often the only way pintos have to make a gift and express their feelings.
To develop contact with the artists whose work I collect and exhibit takes a very long time, because we need to trust each other, and this is certainly more complicated for them than for me. Because I’m living in Europe it sometimes takes three weeks to receive a letter, so to exchange is not easy. Most of the time I’m in contact with family who send my mail. One guy sold me his hankies during his first week of freedom, first to ward off bad luck, but also because he was needing the money. Now he’s able to follow his own exhibition on Facebook, and he’s helping me a lot. With the families and the inmates I’m now developing very specials links. I’m trying to help them as much as I can, and I think creating these exhibitions is like helping them to travel – they’re locked up, but a piece of their hearts takes a plane and visits Europe. I try to send them photos as often as I can.
People who visit the exhibitions react very strongly, and most of the time in a positive way. When people in Europe discover my collection they usually haven’t seen paños before, but they have a lot of references. The American prison system is maybe better known here than the French one, especially through the cinema. We don’t have gangs but people are really curious about them. I have found that when people see the paños, they recognize some of the codes and symbols they see in American movies, hip hop music, and tattoo art.
It’s great to be able to share these life testimonies with the public. I once did a workshop in a jail in France. I brought a few paños to the prisoners. My idea was to expose them to that practice and then have them draw their own handkerchiefs using their own codes. I didn’t want them to use the Chicano aesthetic. That was my first time in jail, and at the beginning I really didn’t know if they would like my ideas. But when I showed them the hankies they were totally amazed by them, and by the thought that Latino gang members, who they perceived as “tough guys,” can take a pen and draw to express their feelings.
They identified strongly with the American prisoners. They started to draw for the first time and were really proud of what they created. The French hankies are exhibited with my collection until the 7th of May in the MRAC, a museum in southern France.
I’m currently making plans for a documentary about pinto art. My experience in a French jail totally change the preconceptions I had about the inmates, the guards and the “inside life,” so I’m hoping the film will help people to meditate on the prison system. I don’t know what the outcomes will be, but if a viewer is seduced by something produced by a prisoner serving a life sentence it is a positive step, right?
For more information, please visit www.nationculblanc.com.
About the guest blogger: Lisa Guenther is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University. She facilitates a weekly discussion group with prisoners on death row at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution. She is the author of Solitary Confinement: Social Death and its Afterlives (forthcoming from Minnesota University Press).
It all began with a word scrawled on paper: ART.
We were sitting in a circle of plastic chairs in Unit 2 of Riverbend Maximum Security Institution. Every week, members of the community meet with prisoners on death row to discuss topics of mutual interest: the meaning of justice, the injustice of poverty and racism, and the possibilities for personal and collective healing and spiritual growth. We call ourselves REACH Coalition. REACH stands for “Reconciling Every human being And Cultivating Humanitarianism.” But it also refers, quite literally, to our desire to reach across the prison walls, beyond the barriers of social inequality, towards a better world. On this particular day, we were trying to figure out how to include more people in our conversations. And the first word that came to mind was art.
It seems like everyone in prison is an artist. They paint, they draw, they write poetry. When they don’t have access to standard art supplies, they become even more creative, using toilet paper or white bread to create sculptures like the “mummy” in Derrick Quintero’s diorama or the animals in Dennis Suttles’ barnyard scene. Richard Odom makes doll furniture out of discarded toilet paper rolls. He says, “Society has flushed us down the toilet, but we can still make something beautiful with the leftovers.”
Some of the artists in this show have been drawing and painting for as long as they can remember. Others started making art in prison, as part of their process of self-transformation, or just to pass the time. Most of the pieces in this show have been made especially for this show, as part of our collective effort to reach out to the public, both to listen and to be heard. Harold Wayne Nichols put it this way in our discussion the other day: “We may be on death row, and we may never see the outside again. But the world still matters to us. When we talk about “us,” we’re not talking about us as individuals, but us as members of society.”
Today, the United States incarcerates more of its own citizens than any other country in the world, and we are the only Western democracy to retain the death penalty. Is this the society we want for ourselves and for others? How do we break cycles of violence and find alternative responses to harm? We invite you to join us in imagining the possibility of transformative justice, both from the inside out and from the outside in. Let’s REACH for a better world.
Prison Galleries: Imagining Justice From the Inside Out
January 16 – February 14, 2013
Sarratt Gallery, Vanderbilt University
Website and online gallery: http://rethinkingprisons.wordpress.com/art-from-tennessees-death-row/