More than 2 million individuals are behind bars in the United States – 537 inmates per 100,000 people. As of July 2021, the U.S. has the highest rate of incarcerated individuals worldwide, with a recidivism rate of 76% compared to Norway’s 20%. What goes on behind prison walls is rarely revealed to the public. Yet, an increased interest in prison art changes that reality.
In 2020, Nicole R. Fleetwood published the book Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration, which focuses on artwork made by incarcerated and formerly incarcerated artists. MOMA PS1 presented a well-received show with the same name following the book launch and featured more than 35 artists. MOMA described that work as “visualizing, mapping, and making physically present the impact and scale of life under carceral conditions.” The author has stated that many formerly incarcerated artists use their art as a bridge for reentry by “establishing relationships with other artists and organizations even before their release.”
The ways that artists tell their stories are as varied as the individuals who are creating the pieces. Jesse Krimes, one of the artists featured at PS1, used prison soap, hair gel, and magazines to transfer images onto prison bedsheets while incarcerated. Recently he has collaborated with Amish quiltmakers. Their efforts were displayed in the middle of a Pennsylvania cornfield. Krimes, who gave a TED talk to share his story, has a prolific and growing art career.
Another artist featured in the Marking Time exhibit is Conor Broderick. Broderick, who tells his stories through watercolor, charcoal, and mixed media, says art saved his life. “I was forced to pick up the paintbrush because I had no other way to express myself in such an oppressive environment.”
Creating art and visually telling a story of life within the prison system is a form of restorative justice and becoming a genre for art collectors. There are organizations nationwide that are working to support the arts within prison walls. A few of those include Words Uncaged, Prison Arts Collective, and Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP).
The mission of Words Uncaged is “empowering people that are currently and formerly incarcerated through art, education and community.” The Prison Arts Collective, based in California, uses art to transform lives through radical healing and connection – “we believe in art as a human right and that art has a capacity to change lives for the better.”
Housed in the University of Michigan’s Residential College, the Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP) has a mission to collaborate with current and formerly incarcerated adults and youth, and urban youth to strengthen community through creative expression. One of it’s largest and most successful programs is the Annual Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners.
What is referred to as Prison Art can also be created by individuals who are not incarcerated, but instead are using the medium to inform and bring awareness about the topic. Titus Kaphar, a Yale educated artist, created his series The Jerome Project after searching for his father and found 99 men, also incarcerated, who shared the same first and last name as his father.
Kaphar created a series of portraits, incarcerated African-American men. He then began dipping each portrait in tar based on the percentage of their life they had spent in prison. The artist quickly abandoned the formula after considering the lingering consequences that imprisonment had on the men’s lives, even after being released.
Other artists, such as Ashley Hunt has spent two decades as an artist, writer and teacher documenting the U.S. prison system, its impact on communities, and how it has perpetuated the racial, economic and genocidal histories.
Hunt’s Correction Documentary Project, “Degrees of Visibility” featured in Barring Freedoms at the San Jose Museum of Art, includes a body of landscape studies that look upon the spaces surrounding prisons, jails and detention centers in all 50 U.S. states.
Art, both introspective and expressive, encourages “emotional processing and the kind of active and productive healing that restorative justice aims towards.” With minimal supplies and endless time, those individuals behind bars are tapping into raw talent and providing us with a much needed opportunity to learn and understand.
“We artists are indestructible; even in a prison.” – Pablo Picasso
Tamara White, PhD is a researcher, artist, and visual activist focused on the intersection of art and social justice.