Art and Imagination Inside Prisons
Featuring visual artworks by incarcerated and formerly incarcerated artists, this virtual gallery, To Breathe, is part of White Snake Project's Death By Life series on "Understanding and Responding to Mass Incarceration" in collaboration with the Pozen Center Human Rights Lab.
Exhibition curator and website design: Noelle Petrowski
Exhibition assistant: Indigo Wright
Organizational support: Michael Fischer and Sarah Rogers
Creative advisors: Cerise Jacobs and Alice Kim
The title of our virtual exhibition, To Breathe, was inspired by Renaldo Hudson's artist statement for his painting "Freedom Cost," which he created when he was on death row and serves as a banner for Death by Life.
"I was sitting in the cell watching the news, listening to people going off about crime. And why they should throw the keys away on all of us. I heard these words, 'FREEDOM COST.' I remember listening as the officers came down the gallery to take one of the brothers to execute him. The words were screaming in my head. 'FREEDOM COST! And don't you forget it.' [The man I painted] is trying to breathe..." - Renaldo Hudson
The visual works featured in To Breathe were designed by artists with wide-ranging life experiences as well as the shared experience of incarceration; and their artworks illustrate the breadth, depth, and power of imagination as a practice of freedom.
We will explore the creative process of artmaking inside prison at this upcoming roundtable conversation, "Art and Imagination Inside Prisons" on Tuesday, April 6th at 7pm ET.
Featured speakers include:
Carole Alden, architectural crochet artist
Renaldo Hudson, visual artist
Michelle Daniel (Jones), photographer and New York University doctoral student
Jesse Krimes, visual artist
Damon Locks, teaching artist with the Prison + Neighborhood Arts/Education Project
Alice Kim (moderator), Pozen Center Human Rights Lab Director
Cerise Jacobs and her activist opera company, White Snake Projects, are pleased to present this conversation as part of the "Understanding and Responding to Mass Incarceration" series leading up to the premiere of their new virtual opera, Death By Life. Conceived as a monument of support for the Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the opera explores the intersection of systemic racism and mass incarceration using texts written by incarcerated writers and their families. Kicking off the online events is the interactive forum Art as Transformation: Music and Drama for Incarcerated Youth on March 30. A virtual exhibition and panel discussion called Art and Imagination Inside Prisons follows on April 6, and the panel discussion Freedom-Making in an Age of Mass Incarceration on April 13. Registration for all three events is free, and links can be found here.
Learn more about Death By Life which premieres on May 20 here.
Born 1960 in Orleans France. Mother of 5 children. Self-taught, with an extensive career in fiber art sculptures prior to being incarcerated in 2006. Prior to release in 2019, contact was made with Wendy Jason of The Justice Arts Coalition. This support opened up a new world of opportunity for her to take a visceral trauma and turn it into a vehicle for communication, hope, and healing. Through The Justice Arts Coalition, Carole was able to begin speaking and sharing her work for a variety of organizations within weeks of release, despite the constraints of parole. Carole recently purchased 80 acres of unincorporated land. The documentary film production team, "Unchained Stories" will be filming Carole's transition as she rebuilds her studio and her life in the high Utah desert.
I would like to draw attention to (no pun intended) the request that I am not to be known as a “prison artist.” As decades before my incarceration, I took art courses and completed my requirements for a Bachelor’s degree in art education at Eastern Kentucky University. At the time, I moved to Arizona, and was working on my Master’s degree in Art History. At the high school level in public school districts, I have many years of experience teaching art courses. Also, in the years prior to my arrest, I had attained tenure. Many years before my incarceration, I’d also been a freelance illustrator. I’ve been asked to illustrate newsletters, design screen prints for t-shirts, as well as business signs and logos... I appreciate the groups who are fighting for rights of prisoners, especially the groups fighting for awareness of the private prison fiasco and hysteria caused to fill those prisons. However, I would like it to be known that although I’m in the prison system, I’m not of the prison system.
Joseph Dole is currently serving a Life-Without-Parole sentence for a crime he did not commit. He is a published writer, artist, and activist, has been incarcerated for over 22 years, and spent a decade in the notorious TAMMS supermax prison. He recently received his Bachelors Degree from NEIU/UWW, focusing on Critical Carceral-Legal Studies. He is co-founder and policy director of Parole Illinois, an organization dedicated to abolishing long-term prison sentences.
Raúl Dorado is an incarcerated student, author and criminal legal reform advocate. He recently graduated from Northeastern Illinois University’s University Without Walls bachelor’s degree program with a B.A. in justice policy advocacy. He is a co-founder of Parole Illinois, a movement to bring a comprehensive and retroactive parole system to Illinois.
Brian Hindson’s story and his collaborative work with other incarcerated artists exemplify this exceptional power of art. His creative story begins twenty-two years after leaving art school. Although Brian attended art school for a couple of years after graduating high school, he didn’t reconnect with art until he was in prison, more than two decades later. While inside, he “found a voice, a re-discovered talent, and more so peace” from artmaking. “There is a LOT of negativity in prison,” he writes, “Everything’s bad…I try to see the positive things – the good things.” Relating art to character, he concludes that his way of looking for the good is how he hopes others will look at him, “as a person.” Brian's work was recently featured in MoMA’s PS1 “Marking Time: Art in the Age of Incarceration” exhibit.
Renaldo Hudson is an educator and community organizer, and has focused his work on ending perpetual punishment in Illinois. After being sentenced to death row, he worked for 37 years while incarcerated in the Illinois Department of Corrections to change the mindset of incarcerated people, as well as staff, regarding what rehabilitation should look like and how to focus attention on true rehabilitation. Renaldo is responsible for founding the groundbreaking Building Block Program, a transformational program run by incarcerated people within the Illinois Department of Corrections. Currently, he serves as education director for the Illinois Prison Project (IPP). Renaldo's work has been in Beecher and media outlets throughout the state, and the subject of the documentary, Stateville Calling.
Scholar and activist Michelle Jones is a fifth-year doctoral student in New York University's American Studies program. Her work excavates the collateral consequences of criminal convictions for people directly impacted by mass incarceration. She published and presented her research findings during twenty years she was incarcerated, disrupting assumptions about the reach and intellectual capacity of justice-involved women. While incarcerated, she presented legislative testimony on a reentry alternative she created for people incarcerated long-term, which was approved by the Indiana State Interim Committee on the Criminal Code. She sits on the advisory boards of the Lumina Foundation and the Urban Institute and is currently under contract with The New Press to publish the history of Indiana's carceral institutions for women, in collaboration with fellow incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women.
Jesse Krimes is a Philadelphia-based artist and curator whose work focuses on criminal and racial justice. While serving a six-year prison sentence, he produced and smuggled out numerous bodies of work. After his release, he co-founded Right or Return USA, the first national fellowship dedicated to supporting formerly incarcerated artists. His work has been exhibited at venues including MoMA PS1, Palais de Tokyo, Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the International Red Cross Museum. Krimes was awarded fellowships from the Robert Raushenberg Foundation, Independence Foundation, Vermont Studio Center, Art For Justice Fund, Captiva Residency, and Creative Capital.
W.B. Livingston III (Will) is a musician and visual artist who is in prison in Oklahoma. Will creates originals and prints, and donates pieces to nonprofits for fundraisers. He also does commission work. “I have now been incarcerated for more than eight years and continue to make art in many different media. I have also spent countless days working on paintings and other projects for charitable causes, such as the Special Olympics, Employment for the Disabled, the Messages Project and the Outsiders House Renovation, to raise operating funds. Over the last year, I decided to combine both of my passions. I started designing and hand-printing concert posters for the bands I like and follow. These posters are created and produced in the Joseph Harp Correctional Institute. I love doing this concert poster project and the charity commissions because it is a way for me to be a part of the world – and to give back to a community and society from which I feel as if I have taken so much.
I am still in a state of disbelief at how people respond to my art. Whenever I sit down to paint with my junky paintbrush and pen ink I’m transported out of this cell and am totally consumed with filling that piece of paper full of my emotions, my stress, anxiety, fear, love, etc. I’m able to let it all out with each little stroke and it never fails to surprise me when I’m finished at how cool it comes out. I’m completely in love with painting. Thank you for allowing me to “set free” each portrait I do. It’s stupid but I like to think that just because I’m in here it doesn’t mean they have to be as well.
Devon Terrell was born and raised on the South Side of Chicago and grew up with Hip Hop. For his bachelor's degree at the University Without Walls program, his depth area is Poetic Justice in Black Culture, which focuses on the use of poetry and art to transform youth culture and society. “My life’s work is making my life work.”
Renaldo Hudson: Freedom Cost - I was sitting in the cell watching the news, listening to people going off about crime. And why they should throw the keys away on all of us. I heard these words ” FREEDOM COST “I remember listening as the officers came down the gallery to take one of the brothers to execute him. The words were screaming in my head. FREEDOM COST! And don’t you forget it. [The man I painted] is trying to breathe, way before G.F. was killed by the cop that stood on his neck until he died. We were trying to breathe through the fog of racist stuff, and his hair being connected to the bars is simply the link of imprisonment that will follow you for the course of your life. Always trying to pull you back into a cell. Our hair is able to carry our strength.
Carole Alden: I built this fiber sculpture as a visual guide to illustrate my plans for a full scale, "Tiny House," trailer. I will build and travel across the United States as I exhibit my artwork. Architectural features will include solar panels built into fins, stained glass eye windows, and a computer generated exterior lighting system designed to mimic the bioluminescence found in deep sea fish. The open floor plan and loft will provide close to 400 square feet. While parked, the mouth opens to add additional deck space with flower boxes and a fire pit. Inside work space includes a computer graphics station as well as a sewing area. Storage space within the trailer base will house the batteries and water tanks. It will be a family project.
Michelle Jones: Point of Triangulation sparks dialogue around public perception and bias. The portrait series depicts people who all have lived experiences of incarceration, shown from two different perspectives. On one side, each person is photographed in their prison sweats, while the image on the opposite side depicts them in the everyday clothing they wear now that they've come home from prison. The figures are juxtaposed in such a way in order to contrast the narrowly prescribed identity of "criminal" or "felon" with an individual's larger, greater truth of themselves. The installation is thus intended to humanize each person and elevate their many positive contributions to the community. It also challenges viewers to consider the stigma and perpetual re-criminalization that formerly incarcerated people confront while reflecting on their own biases or perceptions.
Jesse Krimes: Apokaluptein:16389067 was conceived and executed within federal prison. The title references the Greek origin of the word apocalypse meaning to ‘uncover, reveal;' an event involving destruction or damage on a catastrophic scale; the numbers reference Krimes' Federal Bureau of Prisons identification number. He smuggled the contraband works through the Federal Bureau of Prisons and the United States Postal Service, piece by piece, over a period of three years, resulting in a forced Exquisite Corpse with himself. The resulting work is a series of 39 disembodied prison sheets sutured together, making up a collective installation as vast as the history and timeline represented over his seventy-month absence. Krimes developed a hand-printing process, using hair gel and a plastic spoon to transfer the images he collected from The New York Times onto the surface of the sheets. The fragmented images, removed from narrative sources are inverted and effaced from their supports. Through hand-drawn alterations, he unified the disconnected images into new visual narratives.
Raúl Dorado: Survival Kit - I have included small boxes with jewelry as part of my survival kit to show the level of ingenuity of incarcerated people. The boxes are molded from cardboard and paper and are hand painted. Mattress foam is cut and inserted, providing a cushion. Making the jewelry is a separate and arduous process. I was first incarcerated at the age of fifteen, released for two and a half months, and then incarcerated again for the last twenty years. I’m condemned to a life sentence. I have never been engaged, married, and I don’t have children. The wedding band and heart pendant represents my hope and desire to one day come home and start a family.
Danny Ashton: 1940 Lincoln Zephyr - In my early years of college, I was fortunate to visit the Bahamas. It’s an experience I will always treasure. One of my most vivid memories was swimming the corals, the bright intense colors of the corals and fish was almost blinding in its intensity. It was breathtaking. My wife and I came up with this idea almost simultaneously- independent of each other and I really wanted the setting to be in the Bahamas, with corals and fish indigenous only to that area. I could see that the front of the car and the right foreground would be a focal point. I wanted something interesting there. I thought about a treasure chest, but that’s so cliché. I thought of a lot of other stuff and finally decided on an alien skeleton. I tried to make his skull as “alien” as possible. In case there’s any doubt, I put a laser gun in his hand. Is there a story to this? Well, somebody dumped Uncle Creepy and his car in the ocean. maybe he ran afoul of some Bahamians. I’m not going to get too technical, but compositionally this is on where I used contrast the most to make the front of the car stand out in the textures, shape, contrasting colors, positioning and placement of the car, etc. I want to title this one in German, “Das Versunken Auto” The sunken car.
PNAP: The Long Term - The Long Term is a hand-drawn animation developed by artists serving long-term sentences. The video uses personal narrative and research to describe the scale and impact of long-term sentencing policies. The work tells the stories about the fear of dying inside, the feeling of being programmed by prison and the impact on family life, from the perspective of 11 artists serving life or long-term sentences.
This project is part of a larger body of work by artists, writers, and members of the Prison + Neighborhood Arts/Education Project, who created a series of thematic works around long-term sentencing policies and the other long terms they produce: long-term struggles for freedom, long-term loss in communities, and long-term relationships behind the prison wall. These projects emerged out of classes and collaborative work at Stateville Correctional Center, where people are serving extraordinarily long prison terms (60, 70 and 80 years), often for crimes for which they would have already been released, had they been sentenced 30 years earlier, or in a different country.
Implemented in the 1990s and 2000s, long-term sentencing policies were ushered in as bipartisan reforms and an extension of the “tough on crime” logic. Recent state and federal efforts to reduce mass incarceration have focused on “non-violent drug offenders”. However, if the United States were to free all people incarcerated for what are called “non-violent offenses,” mass incarceration would still stand at just over 700,000, and the racial disparities of criminalization would be even more evident. While freeing people is cause to celebrate, these proposed reforms neglect half of the nation’s state prison population and forget that at one time, long-term sentences were not the norm. The Sentencing Project reports that 1 in 9 people in prison are serving life sentences, and 1 in 7 have sentences of fifty years or more. People locked in, or headed to, maximum security prisons are marked for death-by-incarceration.
The Long Term includes body of creative work that includes: a 13 minute hand-drawn animation made by artists serving long term sentences; a series of video interviews with people impacted by long term sentencing; an audio installation documenting a conversation among formerly incarcerated leaders about carceral policy; a portfolio of risographic prints made by 15 Chicago artists; a series of miniaturized “survival kits” for the long term, made by artists surviving long term sentencing and a series of works on paper. Each project represents one of the many ways we seek to make visible how punitive policies and incarceration shape our communities, families, and ultimately, life-chances.
The Justice Arts Coalition (JAC) unites teaching artists, arts advocates, currently and formerly incarcerated artists, and allies, harnessing the transformative power of the arts to reimagine justice.
Prison + Neighborhood Arts/Education Project (PNAP) is a visual arts and education project that connects teaching artists and scholars to incarcerated students at Stateville Correctional Center, a maximum security prison outside of Chicago, through classes, workshops, a policy think tank, and guest lectures.
The Pozen Center Human Rights Lab actively engages University of Chicago students and community members in solutions to human rights problems, advancing new questions around human rights theory and practice through the lens of deep research, experiential learning, and critical community-building. In its first five years, under the leadership of Director of Human Rights Practice Alice Kim, the Lab is addressing the intersecting human rights crises of racialized policing and mass incarceration in the United States.
White Snake Projects is an activist opera company founded and led by Cerise Jacobs, an immigrant woman of color. Committed to integrating social activism with original opera, the company partners with other activists to cross-promote important social issues, and redefines how opera is made by involving a variety of people from the community. It is also innovative, telling stories across multiple platforms and formats using 21st-century digital technologies, including an audio plugin, the development of which it fostered, that enables live synchronous performance from remote locations. White Snake Projects was inaugurated in September 2016 with Ouroboros Trilogy, a trio of grand operas including the Pulitzer Prize-winning Madame White Snake, and continued with REV. 23 (2017), PermaDeath (2018), I Am a Dreamer Who No Longer Dreams (2019), and the groundbreaking digital opera Alice in the Pandemic (2020), which was acquired by the Library of Congress for its Performing Arts COVID-19 Response Collection.