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

A guest’s reflections on the Iron Cages exhibition

by Jennifer E. Tinker

The evening of January 9th, 2020 proved to be a cold one, yet the decade opened with warmth exuding from inside President Lincoln’s Cottage, where I experienced artwork celebrating the core of the human spirit at a well-attended opening. The physical space and its history lent itself to the celebration of courage and the undying strength of creativity. The Cottage was where Lincoln developed the Emancipation Proclamation, and it is now where the Justice Arts Coalition is displaying the work of 25 currently and formerly incarcerated artists in an exhibition that runs through the month of January. This tapestry of multiple mediums exploring the values of human dignity, internal liberty and hope is a beautiful partnership, in concert with the Lincoln cottage’s new program, A Home for Brave Ideas. This duo advocates for incarcerated artists to be recognized as having a voice and provides an avenue into public dialogue around the intersection of the arts and social justice. Through innovative guided tours, exhibits and programs, Iron Cages reflects the Mission of a Presidency caught between the crosshairs of a punitive society and the reality of our shared humanity. 

Photo by Bruce Guthrie

The evening of artwork by incarcerated artists and performances by local prison and reentry theatre program Voices Unbarred inspired visitors, bridged differences and made tangible a connection to the past while presenting a platform for the work still to be done. As a mother, daughter, sister, wife, teacher and American, I cannot urge my fellow citizens enough to take the opportunity to immerse themselves in this exhibit, participate in the dialogue through interactive pieces and share the experience with others. 

Ultimately, freedom of expression is the greatest freedom of all and no one can steal a person’s creativity, as it is theirs alone. The compassionate commitment to self-expression that these brave artists have shown through creating art in and around the US carceral system unites us all and allows us to understand that transformation happens from within. Please find the time to experience this healing and powerful art exhibit in our nation’s capital. 

“America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.”
― Abraham Lincoln

 

About the guest contributor:

Dr. Jennifer E. Tinker deeply enjoys literature, art and dance. Jennifer practices yoga, and has implemented school gardens in various U.S. educational locations. Eco-Literacy became a main focus of her educational framework from 2012-2016. Since, she has lead several workshops in language-acquisition and Visible Thinking Strategies for teachers in the U.S. as well as China, Thailand, Japan and the Philippines. Her strengths lie in the humanities, and she currently is a teacher in the D.C. Metro region. She continues her family’s tradition of creating and collecting art.

 

Exhibition tour information here.

Please join us on January 30 for a very special closing reception!

Celebrating a successful opening night…and a video launch!

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 wendy@thejusticeartscoalition.org.

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 wendy@thejusticeartscoalition.org. Thank you!

Please join us in DC to celebrate the opening of our first exhibition!

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 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, wendy@thejusticeartscoalition.org

 

 

 

 

Events Calendar for the 23rd Annual Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners

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“Crying Inside” by G. Allen

“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.

Events Calendar

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 aic@calawyersforthearts.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.

All events are free. No ticket required.