Reflections on Participating in an Art Exhibit in the Outside World
Guest Writers: Erick Nava, Chris Garner, and Augie Torres

Thursday, September 20, 2012

posted under by Unit for Criticism
[UIUC's Education Justice Project, which provides educational programs at Danville Correctional Center, is hosting in collaboration with the University YMCA an exhibit, entitled Beyond Lines: Limited Expressions from the Men Within Danville Prison. This exhibit holds a collection of incarcerated artists' work. Three of the artists whose work is represented in the exhibit also formed part of the organizing committee. Beyond Lines will be up until October 14, 2012. The multi-authored post below, organized and submitted by Rebecca Ginsburg, Associate Professor of Education and Landscape and director of the Education Justice Project, collects the impressions of three of the participants.]

Reflections on Participating in an Art Exhibit in the Outside World

"Finding Voice"
By Erick Nava

Most people take their voice for granted and forget the power that it carries. The power to voice injustices and disagreements in their world is always an option if they choose to take it.

As incarcerated men we talk. We talk a lot. But we have lost our voices. We have lost the voice that is respected and heard by people in the world. It doesn’t help that mainstream media portrays incarcerated men as savage sub-human creatures that deserve to be warehoused in a space that seems to be invisible, a forgotten space. As a result, many people assume that incarcerated men have nothing of significance to say. And if they do, so what? They are nothing more than those creatures being warehoused down the street in places like Danville.

Then the call for art comes and we are asked to submit our work to an art exhibit being held in Champaign, Illinois. Surprised by the news, many of us wondered, “Could this be true? Is this our opportunity to be heard?” We wanted our voices to be heard, and so we submitted our art.

People might think that it’s just art, drawings or paintings on paper or canvas. What you, the reader/viewer must realize is that these submissions of art are more than just ink, graphite, paint, or pastel on paper and canvas, showing our skills as artists. What this art signifies is the voice not just of incarcerated artists but the voice of forgotten human beings taking this opportunity to reach out and cry, yell, and plead to the world to stop and hear us and recognize us because we are human.

With and through this art exhibit we send our voices and the voices of the thousands of men that have been forgotten throughout the decades out into the world, as a reminder to everyone outside of prisons that “hey! We’re still in this world.” Prison is not an institution that exists outside of society or on another planet. In these sometimes inhumane prisons are millions of fathers, sons, daughters, grandmothers, grandsons, husbands, cousins, nephews, wives, scholars, philanthropists, teachers, friends, neighbors, and most important, human beings fighting to be heard.

"Artists First"
By Chris Garner

From what I hear around the prison, I view the art exhibit a little differently than some of the guys who have expressed their thoughts about it. I find it interesting that many of the artists feel the need to show society how “human” they are and how they have changed as individuals since they became able to express themselves through art. It is as though they want to say to the viewers, “I am not a monster. I’ve made mistakes in life, but I realize what life is about now that I’m able to think clearly!”

My thought is that this opportunity gives the artists, who just happen to be in prison, a line of communication. It allows us to connect with fellow artists and art lovers alike, and get feedback on our work that can and will help us as artists.

It isn’t about being in prison for me.

Certainly, limitations are recognized. The exhibit gives us a chance to open the minds of society to new perceptions and possibilities when it comes to the lives of the incarcerated men. I would like to think that people understand that we are “human.” The challenges we artists face in prison are noted, which makes the art that much more interesting. But it’s the engagement of the artists with the outside world that is so important to me.

Our art is our outlet to reach out to our communities, families, and society, to let them know that while prison can and has broken many men, we are trying to help ourselves stay focused and positive, through art.

"To Be Taken as Human"
By Augie Torres

One of the most dehumanizing feelings I have felt in my life was and continues to be that of being viewed as a prisoner because of all the negative connotations the label carries. The look in a person’s eyes is unmistakable. It is an expression of disgust, fear, and condescension all wrapped into one.

Prison tours are a perfect opportunity to glimpse this expression. Scores of college or high school students go on a field trip to their local prison, there to get a closer look at “real life prisoners” and the conditions under which they are housed.

These prison tours are eerily similar to trips the students might have taken in grammar school or junior high to zoos.

During these zoo visits, the students would have been afforded the opportunity of a closer look at wild animals, animals they would have seen numerous times on television and in the pages of books and magazines, but never in real life. The students would have toured the zoo with a hint of fear in their eyes, an unwarranted fear of the barriers between the animals and them being breached.

Disgust would be visible on the students’ faces due to the living conditions the animals were relegated to, and that pale in comparison to the natural habitats the animals once roamed and flourished under.

The animals serve to remind the students that they are human, civilized, capable of distinguishing right from wrong, and inherently good. Animals lack these qualities, which only humans possess. Therefore, to lack these qualities is to be less than human.

People in prison are viewed as lacking the ability to distinguish right from wrong and being inherently immoral. This school of thought discourages the allocation of resources to people in prison, resources such as vocational training, art programs, and parenting classes, to name a few, which can serve to make life-altering changes in a person’s thought process.

Opportunities such as the art exhibit made possible by the University YMCA and the Education Justice Project serve to help regain a sense of self worth and purpose, which can be lost within the prison industrial complex.

This art exhibit will have hopefully served to break down stereotypes of people in prison, by presenting us as talented artists with possible bright futures rather than worthless beings who simply take up space.

4 comments

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4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Very nice project and writing. Interesting artworks as well. Thanks for posting.

Lauren said...

TY, Anonymous, if you return, it would be great if you chose a name for yourself so that we can recognize you while you preserve your anonymity. Glad you enjoyed the post--I did too! LG

Starting over said...

I was in Danville CC but not in the art program. My cellmate however was. My stay was not as long as most. The art program helps those guys so much. It's really all he has to look forward to. It helped take so much stress off him and helped him focus on the things he needed to. I don't know what those guys would do without it. It keeps people calm and focused. I seen that first hand. It can make the most violent man be calm and at peace. I wanted to see the artwork at the Y so bad however, I was too late when I went it had been taken down. I was thinking it would be really cool to see the work of those I spent time "inside" with. I hope the art program is around for a long time and hope people realize the good it does for not only the inmate but the officers too. It keeps the place calm.

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