Oculus: Of A Place Unseen

by Michelle Repiso

The location: on the school bus 

The scene: Lorton Correctional Facility

While riding the bus to high school I would make it a point to look to my right and imagine what it must feel like to be incarcerated. I would also visually explore the grounds thinking I would witness someone escaping since Lorton Prison had that reputation. Every day I would pass the prison and remind myself that as bad as it felt being on that bus at 7:00am, it could be worse. I was fascinated and unnerved for 10 seconds a day then I would go on with life. Subconsciously I now realize that this micro experience has led me to pursue and continue my art program at Rikers Island for the past three years. Today Lorton prison has closed and is now Workhouse Arts Center where they support artists and also houses a museum that covers the Workhouse from the reformatory to the arts center.

I am fortunate to be exhibiting Basic Necessities in a group show at Workhouse. Basic Necessities documents three individuals and the mechanisms they employ to sustain their humanity while incarcerated. This exhibition demonstrates man’s need for communication and connection within our environment no matter how harsh. Tiger Mountain provides music for a video piece that accompanies interviews from Coss Marte, Shane Ennover and Juan Howard. 

Exhibition information:

Oculus: Of A Place Unseen
On view November 22, 2019 – February 2, 2020 

Workhouse Arts Center – McGuireWoods Gallery, Building W-16

Website: http://www.workhousearts.org/

Workhouse Arts Center is pleased to present the interactive exhibit Oculus: Of A Place Unseen featuring works of artists Elaine Buss, Edgar Endress, Michelle Repiso and Steve Wanna. The use of the word ‘oculus,’ most known as an eye-like form in architecture, gestures towards the enlightening narratives discovered throughout the show. Each referencing feelings of solitude and contemplation, the storylines range from institutional boundaries to societal oversights and mantra meditations. Some works are as light as silk, some as heavy as stone, but the overall space is quiet — both literally and figuratively. Oculus: Of A Place Unseen encourages visitors to listen, connect and reconnect.

Photograph from Basic Necessities, Michelle Repiso

About the guest contributor:

Born in Puerto Rico and raised in Northern Virginia, Michelle Repiso graduated from The Corcoran School of the Arts and Design in Washington, D.C., where she received a BFA in Photography (2000). Michelle is currently an adjunct faculty member with the International Center of Photography (ICP), Teen Academy, a certified M/WBE business based in New York City and works as a commercial, documentary and fine art photographer in both analog and digital formats. 

 In October 2016 Michelle started facilitating art classes at Rikers Island and in 2017 she developed Create & Connect, which is designed to keep families unified through a creative process of dialogue and hands-on art projects for incarcerated men, women and youth. Participants create original projects to send to their child, family, or friends as a way to unify and maintain communication through long distances. Emphasis is on the creative process and self-expression regardless of artistic skill level.

Prison Art Show at Queens Museum

Artwork is on display at the Queens Museum from artists incarcerated on Rikers Island. The New York Times ran the following story about the exhibit. Be sure to scroll through the images in the article to view the artwork:

At Queens Museum, Inmates’ Artistic Visions


They fell into trouble with the law, but now they are making art as they pursue their studies.

A variety of artwork — paintings, drawings, poems, plays and even pocketbooks made from newspapers — will be on view at the Queens Museum of Art tomorrow through July 5. The works were created by jail inmates at Rikers Island and juvenile delinquents participating in city-run programs for youthful offenders.

The participants in the show are working toward high school diplomas or General Educational Development high school equivalency diplomas, at the Austin H. MacCormick Island Academy and the Horizons Academy, on Rikers Island, and the Passages Academy, which works with juvenile delinquents in Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx.

For legal and privacy reasons, the artists are identified only by their first names and last initials. The organizers of the art show wrote in a short catalog accompanying the exhibition:

During the three years in which we have produced this joint art show, we have learned that to underestimate the creative potential of young minds is to waste an opportunity to witness the ability of the human spirit. These students continue to thrive under extreme and exceptional circumstances. The creative potential is unlocked by the commitment and relentless determination of great teachers.

The title of the exhibition, “Underestimate Me…No More,” was inspired by a poem by one young artist, Antoine B. The poem states, in part:

I will show you my worth
Show you my value
Underestimate me
Doubt me


No More
I will rise
I will rise 2 every occasion
And I will continue to rise
Even when u think I’m falling


And when the dust settles
And you c me again!
You’ll underestimate this man
Never more!!!


NY1 also ran a story on the exhibit. Check out this video clip to hear interviews with family members of the artists and see some of the art displayed at the gallery.