Sunday, June 5, 2022

Art from Prison

At any one time, there are about 2 million individuals incarcerated in this country and 95% are eventually released but 60% find themselves right back again.

As you know or can imagine prison is a rather bleak place.

You may be aware of art therapy for prisoners and therapists who specialize in this area of psychology. According to one of the books on the subject these programs not only promote creativity but also focus and discipline the mind whether by finding the right word in poetry or prose, or the notes on a musical instrument or memorizing lines in a play or working out a composition in painting and drawing. At completion these projects result in satisfaction and self-esteem. It gives an individual the knowledge that they can contribute to the general population, whether they become artists, or start on further education, or whatever they would like to achieve.

There are not-for-profit organizations like the Justice Arts Coalition (JAC) that aim to “unite teaching artists, arts advocates, and artists who are, or have been, incarcerated harnessing the transformative power of the arts to “reimagine justice.”

A 2016 publication, “Therapy Essential“ states “Art breaches the walls, providing a message to those outside. Specifically, art therapy allows the inmate to express him or herself in a manner acceptable to both inside the prison and the outside culture. Art, we hope, seems to evoke humanity in most people.”

If not otherwise identified the photos of paintings by inmates that I are in this Missive come from “Incarceration and the Law, Cases and Materials” which informs that prisoners are not allowed to sell from prison so sometimes, but not always, funds are raised by curators or the receiving institution to give the artists a small stipend. These can be used in the commissary to even buy their own work back!

In an article In The Nation Zachary Small writes about the “commodification of prison art” and criticizes curators and exhibitions that “often trivialize the brutality of the corrections system by framing artists in the very same social hierarchies they seek to undo.”. He reports that San Quentin has even opened a gift shop with art by the prisoners on Death Row which you too can buy. Here is an image from “Boing Boing”.

An article I found on “Artnet” titled “I Organized My First Art Show from Behind Bars” by Rahsaan Thomas intrigued me. What I found equally amazing was that Thomas was incarcerated in San Quentin, the prison used in every book and film as the place where the worst of criminals reside. He was serving a life sentence as were a number of these artists when he became interested in what his fellow prisoners created. He tells us that his first show was “Meet us Quickly: Painting for Justice From Prison” at the Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAd) in San Francisco in 2020. Rahsaan Thomas photo by Antwan Williams. Courtesy of "Ear Hustle."

He writes, “My honorary title of curator came about because a Jewish lady was determined to work with a system-impacted Black person on decarceration. Jo Kreiter, an aerial dance choreographer, experienced the prison industrial complex through visiting her husband in federal custody. His mistreatment inspired her to use dance for activism…..

She came up with the concept, ‘The Decarceration Trilogy: Dismantling the Prison Industrial Complex One Dance at a Time’”.

Thomas and Kreiter corresponded under difficult circumstances considering prison rules which became even more restricted during Covid. Eventually the pair decided that the idea was “Jewish People and Black people working together to end a plague that infects us all.”

Emily Kuhlman, curator at MoAd, asked Thomas to write a statement for the show, what the title should be and whether he wanted individual artists statements etc. He had thought that he was just doing a favor for his favorite San Quentin artists but he came to learn what was involved in being a curator. In the end the money was raised to give a small amount to each of the artists.

In the process of putting this blog together I realized that although most would agree that our criminal justice system needs a serious overhaul, art can offer a way to make it slightly more tolerable.

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