Inmates find an escape through art as their works are displayed at Governor’s Island.
Not too many art galleries feature works of art that are as powerful and as culturally important as the pieces being shown at in an aging house on Governor’s Island. The exhibit is Escaping Time: Art from U.S. Prisons and it features artworks created by current and former inmates. In partnership with Defy Ventures and Safe Streets Art Foundation, inmates sent their paintings and sketches with their handwritten story attached or, in some cases, on the back of the works themselves. Most of the artists are self-taught with crimes ranging from drug possession to murder and the art displayed ranged from sketches on envelopes to paintings with acrylics on canvas. Not only is the art incredibly beautiful and striking, but it’s message is powerful and one that needs to be heard. The artwork invokes raw feelings ranging from disdain for the prison system to nostalgia to longing for freedom and is expertly contextualized by both the handwritten mini-biographies and the various statistics and quotes about the U.S. prison system. Art has clearly had a transformative and cathartic experience in these inmates’ lives and also starts an interesting conversation about if the art can be separated from the artist. We sat down with curator Anastasia Voron to discuss the goals of this exhibit, how the public can be a part of this activist movement, and what her favorite pieces were.
Rachel Padell: What got you interested in exploring the prison system through art?
Anastasia Voron: In January, the first generation of this collection was exhibited in the gallery, and this was the second generation and they had asked me to take the reins on curating. I had over 300 works to choose from, of which we’re exhibiting 200, including the work of Tony Papa, who came in just recently. We got the residency from Governor’s Island a few months ago, so it’s really great that they’ve invited us to be here for two months. In this show, each piece has a handwritten letter or note from a prisoner which I’ve typed up, either on the label or, as much as possible, put up the actual letter. I’ve also sprinkled around statistics about our US prison system throughout. We have a TV playing four videos: for example, Obama speaking in Oklahoma, John Oliver presenting on prisons, and two other programs for educational purposes. What I think we’re trying to do most of all, in this show, is two things: the first is show how art can be therapeutic. You know, these prisoners have a very limited lack of resources. We have work in here that’s done with a cafeteria coffee, toothpaste, bed blankets, hair, shoe strings, anything they can find. The majority of them say they are self-taught, going through the books in the library and kind of learning from the masters, and there are so many quotes about them revealing how it’s therapeutic and it allows them to pass the time, to commemorate memories, or think about the future, like becoming a tattoo artist or something, or to be at peace. Educational programming and art programming has that ability. The second thing that we’re trying to do is to teach more people about what is going on in our US prisons. I believe it’s very outdated and callous system, the statistics speak for themselves. By pairing the statistics with the handwritten letters and the first person stories from the prisoners themselves, no legal cases, hand written notes of them just pouring their hearts out over six pages from a middle school notebook, I hope to be joining a bigger conversation that’s arguing and hoping for prison reform and also adding a human face value to prisoners. There are viewer that come in that don’t have any experience with prisoners, don’t know much about the statistics surrounding it, and those types of people I find just don’t really thinking about it. It’s very easy to marginalize that whole conversation if it doesn’t affect us personally. Hopefully this show is happening at a time that I think a lot of people are gaining new awareness, the conversations have been opening up and people are booming more informed. I think this show, maybe a few years ago, would’ve not been on the radar at all and now it’s gaining a lot of interest from the press and from the viewers, and the feedback I’m getting mostly just from the visitors on the island is that, first of all, it’s complex, and that it’s powerful because it’s real and it’s right now.
RP: What can people do on a large and small scale to work towards prison reform?
AV: I”m a big fan of the idea that education enhances your experience of anything and I think the first step in something like advocating for reform is just knowing what’s going on. I am not by any means calling for a revolution or anything dramatic in that sense, I’m just hoping to educate and spread awareness because when you know you become more aware of it. There are, of course, important players that are fighting for it, going to senate meetings, Tony Papa’s very interested in the war on drugs and it’s connection to mass incarceration and he was here giving talks about what is going on because he knows his facts and has been through it himself. Many people left that day having a better understanding about how there’s some organizations that are getting rich off of incarceration and it’s not fair.
RP: What is your favorite piece in the exhibit?
AV: One that I think about that most, that as an art history major really touches what I’m interested in, is a work on the second floor by Daniel Landry, it’s a collection of birds. When I was archiving all 300 works, which basically meant I opened the envelope that the prisoner sent to the foundation, typed up the letter, the materials, measured, when I opened those birds I was so moved for some reason. They’re the most beautiful, glowing, highlighted, elegant birds I’ve ever seen and I was so moved by them because I felt like the man who created them must have been at peace and had some vibrancy in his life. I googled him, as I google every inmate as I’m just curious what the case is, and he is a Neo-Nazi mass murderer who’s on death row. I am holding his handwritten letter and his beautiful birds and I had to take a walk. It made me start thinking, can you separate a beautiful artwork from the artist? Does the artwork become Neo-Nazi mass murderer? And I can’t, but I’m so moved by them. And then the other one that I’m particularly moved by is the purple landscape with the long story about a surgeon who mad this way from nothing and just feels he was unjustly accused for the murder of his wife, stating facts like he was, first of all, in a different county during that time, the shoe size didn’t match, etc. When I googled his case, there’s a legal case published online and none of the facts that he mentioned are in that case so I don’t know who to believe and that bothers me. I want to help so many of them because you get attached. When you walk in (to the exhibit), the quote by Katherine Hope, “Imagine if we were remembered for the worst thing we’ve done”, I wanted to put that there to kind of pave the way for the rest of the show. Thinking about prisoners who, when they’ve finished their sentence and they re-enter back into society, they have quite a hard time finding work and building a career and a life and finding a home because they’re marginalized. They legally have to say during any interview that they were in prison and some can’t even get dishwashing jobs. Hopefully thinking about that quote as well can help people kind of step away from any stigma that surrounds that topic.
50% of all sales go to back to the incarcerated artists and the rest goes to Safe Streets Arts Foundation and Defy. The exhibit is open weekends through September 27, 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
More information on organizations that are working towards prison reform are found here: http://www.safestreetsarts.org/