“We, the Unbound”

by Peggy Rambach

Address for the HOC Mural Project Unveiling Celebration with MIT at the Suffolk County House of Correction

Feb. 15, 2019

We, The Unbound
We, The Unbound A collaboration between artists at MIT and The Suffolk County House of Correction. Directed by Sara Brown. Acrylic on canvas, 40in x 60in panels.

Lately, we’ve all been hearing a lot about walls – whether we like it or not.

And as a result, we can’t help thinking about what a wall represents: division, protection, confinement – all of which are a necessary part of a facility like this.

But a wall can also be a canvas that inspires imagination and creativity.

Mural design work

And big walls, like this one, communicate a message with a particular kind of power.

The message of the women in the Women’s Program here, who designed this work of art in just four, one and a half hour classes, was conveyed in this way:

One might interpret the eyes as the eyes of the soul, and our sorrows illustrated by tears. And so often – if we’re patient enough – we find our sadness leads to new growth represented in the form of the tree. Jellyfish are unconfined by walls and water. Walls become the universe, a ceiling the sky, and flowers break through anything that might stop them from blooming. All of this saying, that no matter what, we have to capacity to break through what may confine us. And that’s why everyone wanted a doorway that leads to the light of possibility and hope.

Practice eye

And so, art transformed a blank wall into the image, I would say, of human resilience, showed how we can dissolve, scale and transform any wall that may threaten to permanently confine us. Walls like: disappointment, failure, addiction, poverty, fear, heartbreak, prejudice, and any number of traumas we encounter as we live our lives.

If we are human, it’s pretty hard to avoid one or all of these things — no matter our life circumstances.

That is why a large part of the HOC Mural Project’s vision was to form an unlikely union between two groups of people in two very different life circumstances.  

Instruction with Sara Brown

One group would be considered to be privileged, celebrated for their skills and the social and technological contributions they will make to our country and even the world. The other, once back in society, will have a great deal to face and overcome, including stigma and a sense of alienation, in order to establish a life that is secure and settled, productive, and healthy.

And yet, put these two groups together in this room to learn together how to make what you see before you, and what lies between them is no division, only respect, camaraderie, and friendship.

Group photo MIT and HOC

My role in this project was small. I thought of having the women here paint a mural long ago, and I made the first overture to MIT. Other than that, I pretty much just stood around; and while standing around, I couldn’t help but observe. And this is what I saw:

I saw an immediate bond develop between Mijin and Sokhee, created not only by a common purpose but by a common language.

I saw and heard everyone express admiration and respect for Johanna’s portrait of mother and child, and I saw Johanna glow with new-found confidence in herself as an artist.

Painting the mural

I saw admiration and respect for Yahaira’s leadership, and the patience and perseverance that she and Jennifer brought to the two full weeks they worked together to perfectly execute the leaves on the tree.

I saw the moment that Allison, urged on by everyone’s encouragement, broke through her hesitation to put paint to canvas. I saw Lesley and Farrah, Norma and Graciane let go of self-doubt to engage whole-heartedly in every aspect of the experience. Along with the creative work, they often took on the less romantic yet equally important task of prep work and clean up.

Painting the mural

I saw the group’s dependence on Taylor and Johanna’s ability to make the sky, and dependence on how all the MIT students effortlessly measured and strung the grids that showed everyone where to place each image.

 I watched how everyone arrived each day to immediately plunge in and work without a break (unless there was pizza and doughnuts) until it was time to go.

And I saw everyone, without exception, contribute his or her individual strengths to a single purpose and goal — in no way motivated by ego or the need for individual recognition.

Practice leaves

And I have to mention Yinka. Yinka’s candle, the image she suggested be in the design and the image that perfectly depicted Yinka’s spirit, one that brought her to come and work cheerfully on this mural just a few hours before she knew she would be deported to Nigeria and separated, perhaps permanently, from her husband and two young sons. Yinka’s optimism and courage and faith was an example to us all, and I believe we will always think of that candle as the symbol of the light Yinka brought to our lives.

Design work

So again, there was no wall at all between the individuals who made this work of art. And because they experienced that unity in a tactile and visceral way, they will disperse what they learned here throughout their lives, and I hope influence those who might see only division where there is unity and only difference where there is always commonality.

This may just have been this project’s greatest achievement of all.

I am proud to have been part of this institution, the Suffolk County House of Correction, and to have witnessed two very different institutions cooperate and collaborate to make all of this happen, spurred by a common belief in the value of art to heal, unify, and inspire.

Group photo
MIT Mural, Installed Feb. 1 2019

Funding for this project was provided by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Office of the Vice Chancellor and The Council for the Arts at MIT.

About the guest contributor:

Peggy Rambach M.A., M.F.A., is the author of several books and is recognized primarily as a writer, though she has become intensely devoted to pastel.  She has studied with local pastel artists and is otherwise, self-taught. She has taught as a non-benefit employee at Suffolk County House of Correction since 2008.
Along with her work in Corrections, Ms. Rambach has taught in healthcare, in social service centers, and in the Medical Humanities. She has received grants and fellowships from the Schwartz Center, the Massachusetts Cultural Council, The Massachusetts Literacy Foundation, and the Yaddo and MacDowell artist colonies. Ms. Rambach is also a featured artist in the documentary film: The Healing Arts, New Pathways to Health.

“My body may be imprisoned, but nothing can keep my creative vision from reaching out beyond these walls.” – the unbounded heartwork of Carole Alden

Woman Impaled - Part 1 of Bars Triptych
Prison Cell Bars Triptych, part 1: “‘Woman impaled upon bars’: I originally did this concept when I was very first incarcerated and facing a sentence of 20 – life. I had been unexpectedly ripped from my children’s lives. Out of five children I still had two that were young enough to be at home. A 14 year old son and a 9 year old daughter. The positioning of the woman represents the overwhelming pain and mental anguish at seeing my hopes and dreams disappear beyond a horizon. I felt helpless and hopeless for a long time.”  
Woan Crocheting - Part 2 of Bars Triptych
Part 2: “The woman crocheting is an act of defiance. This is a mindset developed after over a decade. My body may be imprisoned, but nothing can keep my creative vision from reaching out beyond these walls. Whether it’s beauty, or a statement…it’s going to places I may never. This piece is about finding your voice in whatever manner available to you.”
Untitled - Part 3 of Bars Triptych
Part 3: “In this cell, the fish represents the protective mental and emotional barriers we construct to keep ourselves safe. The child represents the changes we go through to nurture our new dreams.”
“The pregnant mermaid and the male with his back turned has to do with domestic violence. Being held captive by a spouse who hides their true nature. Feeling trapped, dead inside, and praying for your children.”
Baby Peeling Head Open
“Baby Peeling Head Open – This represents therapy in prison. You’re treated like a child in a steel playpen. Painful but necessary to examine the content of your head in order to grow beyond your circumstances.”

Mermaid and Fish

Mermaids
“There are four drawings that incorporate mermaids with children or fish. These are simply joyful pieces.”

Mermaid and Fish

Mermaid

 

 

Girl with Dragon
“‘Girl with Dragon’ represents the desire I had as a child to feel protected.”
Hippocampus
“The horse sea creature is a hippocampus from mythology. Just for fun.”

 

Cadillac - When I'm Free
“The Cadillac fiber sculpture (crochet) is a piece that is part of a “When I am free” series. It helps me to visualize a day when I am no longer in prison. I feel that it is crucial to develop a freedom within yourself regardless of your surroundings. It gives you that reservoir of spirit that keeps you intact mentally and emotionally no matter what you have to cope with behind bars. If you believe that they can’t take who you are away from you, then they won’t be able to ever silence you completely. Creating works of art and words are the best way to continue your connection with the larger world.”

When I Am Free

When I Am Free

When I Am Free

 

 

 

Incarcerated Women and the Transformational Power of Poetry

by Leah Thorn

About the guest blogger: Leah Thorn is an artist/activist, using spoken word poetry for the autobiographical exploration of identity and liberation. She frequently performs in collaboration with dancers and musicians and her work is published through performance, film, anthologies and magazines in England and the United States. Leah also leads poetry-as-empowerment workshops, primarily in prisons. In 2013 she received a Royal Society for Public Health Special Commendation Award for her contribution to Creative Arts and the Criminal Justice System.

I was recently invited to give a talk at a TEDxWomen event on a subject in some way related to women’s liberation. The event was part of the TEDWomen initiative that started in San Francisco at the beginning of December ’13 and inspired day-long events in over one hundred countries. 

I chose to focus my talk on incarcerated women, feminism and the transformational power of poetry, mostly because issues of sexism and male domination are so starkly apparent within the setting of women’s prisons.

I go into women’s prisons as a spoken-word poet and as a women’s liberation activist. The starkness of prison keeps me rooted and alive to the rawness of sexism, male domination and misogyny and to the lived experiences of working-class Black and white women. I have had a two-year writing residency in a high security women’s prison and I undertake short projects, for example with women who self-harm or with older women. In my workshops and one-to-one sessions I enable women to express their thoughts and experiences through talking, writing, publishing and performance and provide a safe place where they can release pent-up emotions. This can lead to a sense of empowerment and agency and a development of trust and openness. Although the focus is not to produce crafted work, many women do. I also speak out as a poet/performer on issues of women’s liberation and incarceration. It often feels that this is a deliberately well-hidden subject.

in a naked state
the women who name
those women have to be contained
those women who disclose, expose
those who show, too eager to show
show scars, who hurting
hurt others
take them, scapegoat,
away

I write from the perspective of living in England, the ‘lock up capital’ of Europe, where 45 out of every 100,000 of the general population are in prison. I have also had the opportunity to see first-hand the female System of Corrections in the United States, the carceral nation of the world with 724 per 100,000 of the general population in prison. The situation for women in the two countries is very similar, understandably so as sexism is sexism and there is a universality to women’s narratives. The stories and poems I heard were interchangeable in the similarity of their detail and emotion. Once a safe creative space is made, women tell hard stories, eager to share with each other, often for the first time. In both countries I have been audience to poignant poems and monologues on themes of domestic violence, sexual abuse, drug and alcohol addiction and involvement in prostitution.

A woman’s pain is universal.
A woman’s tears are global.
We love the same. We cry the same.
We lose the same. We all settle for less of the same.
We prostitute our minds. Sell our emotions short.
Sometimes at no price at all.
We trust the same, fallin’ prey
as victims of abuse and misuse.
We are all the same. Our struggle the same.
Universal

Extract from a poem by Star

However, there are also some stark differences between the US and the UK in the treatment of incarcerated women. In the UK, there is a groundswell of alliances to end the incarceration of women. For example, the Corston report was commissioned by the then Labour government in the wake of a series of deaths of women in custody, with a remit to address the need for ‘a distinct, radically different, strategic, proportionate, holistic, woman-centred, integrated approach’. One of the successes of the report was to stop the regular strip searching of women – “Regular repetitive unnecessary overuse of strip searching in women’s prisons is humiliating, degrading, undignified and a dreadful invasion of privacy. For women who have suffered past abuse, particularly sexual abuse, it is an appalling introduction to prison life and an unwelcome reminder of previous victimisation.” Strip searching is still common practice in most states of North America.

Unlike the States, there is no regular shackling of women in the UK, nor a blanket use of uniform. There are also routine schemes in UK prisons that, although very limited, do go some way to supporting women – eg Storybook Mums, where women write, illustrate and record stories for their children; Toe By Toe, a peer literacy scheme; Listeners, offering emotional peer support; and programmes to support women who have experienced domestic violence or prostitution.

I hope the talk shows in some way that the community solutions for non-violent women offenders should be the norm. More needs to be done to divert women not just from court but also from prosecution and to divert young women away from criminal activity before they start offending.