Ruby Lerner, executive director of Creative Capital, introducing the Creative Conversations panel on April 19 in New York City. Seated (left to right): Michelle Coffey, Paul Rucker, Nick Szuberla, Gregory Sale, Maria Gaspar, Shawn Peters. (all photos by author for Hyperallergic)

When I walked into the Greene Space for Creative Capital’s first Creative Conversations event — focused on artists who make work about criminal justice and the prison system — I felt a little skeptical. Here were five artists who were given thousands of dollars by Creative Capital to make work and build careers, while many of the subjects of their work face life behind bars, often with stints in solitary confinement, or, when they’re released, serious barriers to things like gainful employment and housing. The relationship between artists and their subjects has always been full of potential pitfalls, and in the midst of the presidential primary spectacle and a cultural environment in which trying to demonstrate social consciousness has become a kind of currency for mega-corporations and massive arts institutions alike, it can be tough not to feel the creep of cynicism. But this conversation surprised me.

The artists on the panel, Maria Gaspar, Shawn Peters, Paul Rucker, Gregory Sale, and Nick Szuberla, didn’t come across as saviors or slick presenters, though Creative Capital structured the evening to have them each give a quick TED-like pitch for their project. They came across, by and large, as people of conscience who had taken up this topic for different reasons and found themselves deeply affected by their subjects. And in every case, the artists spent some or most of their time putting the voices and work of their collaborators and subjects front and center. Ultimately, what I took away were serious questions and reflections on the role of artists today, particularly when doing work that intersects with some of the most pressing and entrenched issues of our day.

Take Maria Gaspar, of the 96 Acres Project, as an example. She grew up near Cook County Jail, located in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood. It’s the largest jail in the United States and also considered by many to be the largest mental health facility in the country. While Gaspar has a solo practice, she’s also been participating in the creation of large-scale public murals and mosaics around Chicago since 2004. Her own practice and her work with community collaborators led her, in 2012, to found 96 Acres, which is centered entirely on Cook County Jail and its community, both inside and out.

As its website states, the project focuses on “examining the impact of incarceration through art interventions that propose counter narratives.” Gaspar and her collaborators do this in a variety of ways, from recording audio narratives to projecting animated stories onto the jail’s crumbling walls, to community education programs that work not just to impart knowledge but also to acknowledge what Gaspar referred to as “community scholarship” — i.e. the wealth and breadth of knowledge that communities carry and build outside of academia. What Gaspar seems to have created with 96 Acres is not so much a series of artworks, but instead a platform for cultural and personal expression, a collaborative learning environment, and a site of community organizing.

Another artist on the panel, Nick Szuberla, seems to be doing something similar, but his project has scaled outward from its origins in rural Whitesburg, Kentucky, where he first began focusing on the prison system during a stint as a volunteer hip-hop DJ back in the late 1990s. Prisoners who’d been relocated to the area from large cities were listening to the music he broadcast with fellow DJ Amelia Kirby, on the only hip-hop program in the region at the time; they started sending him letters about the racial tensions and treatment they faced at the newly constructed Wallens Ridge State Prison. This turned out to be pivotal moment for Szuberia, who worked with Kirby to produce a documentary film about the situation, Up the Ridge. Since then, Szuberla’s work has focused almost entirely on the voices and experiences of prisoners and their families, from Calls from Home, a regular radio program that invites families to call in to say hello to and update their relatives on the inside, to theater programs for prisoners, to the newer Nation Inside, an organizing platform that local groups around the country can use to share stories as well as build and carry out campaigns against mass incarceration.

Maria Gaspar introducing her work at the Creative Conversations panel, April 19, 2016, New York City (photo by author for Hyperallergic)

Maria Gaspar introducing her work at the Creative Conversations panel

It was during the Q&A that the question of the artist’s role came up most directly. The evening’s moderator, Michelle Coffey, executive director of the Lambent Foundation, asked each of the panelists how they avoid getting in the way of the work, which I took to mean how they avoid putting themselves and their art practice above the voices of their collaborators and the urgent need to transform the criminal justice system. All of the artists acknowledged that it’s something they think about a lot. Szuberla spoke about feeling like his role has shifted over time, from initially, in the early 1990s, being a voice out in front and trying to draw attention to now seeking ways of providing opportunities for others to be out in front. Because, as Gregory Sale noted by quoting Glenn Martin, founder of JustLeadershipUSA, “Those closest to the problem are closest to the solution.”

Another question touched on the enormity of the problem of mass incarceration in our country and the feeling that facing down such a many-tentacled issue can become overwhelming. Some in the group suggested that this is where artists’ skills can really add value. Specifically, artists help perform two critical tasks: 1) crafting or shaping narratives that force the audience to recognize and grapple with the humanity of the characters or people involved, and 2) using abstraction and novel metaphors, ideas, or methods to make inroads into dealing with the full scale of the problem. Shawn Peters’s project The Art of Dying Young is an intriguing example of this, not just because of the narrative, which tells of four young men memorialized in murals created by community members in Bedford Stuyvesant, South Williamsburg and Bushwick (all Brooklyn neighborhoods); it’s also unique because of his deliberate choice to use a bike tour, which means the short films, audio, and tests from the project end up located and associated with geography, making use of the power that location has to shape our memories. Peters’s chosen method is intended to more deeply implant the memory of the stories he’s sharing in order to potentially increase the impact of those stories.

Of course, the projects and infrastructure that these artists have put in place are not perfect — nothing is. Artist Paul Rucker, whose recent exhibitions include REWIND and The Empathy Project, noted two of the biggest challenges facing artists who work in this vein, particularly at a time when the topic of mass incarceration is so prominent. “The greatest risk is making people feel good about doing nothing,” he said — in other words, having audiences nod and appreciate the work and feel good for having seen it does not in fact change the lived reality of those who are caught in the prison system. We must be spurred to take meaningful action. (This critique has been leveled at a number of social practice works, most recently Andrea Fraser’s Open Plan exhibition at the Whitney Museum.) Second, Rucker asked those on the panel and in the room alike, “How do we get to people who aren’t on board?” What sites and methods can be employed to get the work in front of those who are not as readily inclined to agree that mass incarceration and the deep racism underpinning it are in need of change?

At one point during the Q&A, Susan N. Herman, president of the American Civil Liberties Union, stood up to ask how artists and other groups could build coalitions to increase the momentum behind prison reform legislation being drafted around the country, such as in Oklahoma. While most of the artists on the panel agreed that they support coalition building, it was also clear that those who’ve been working on these issues for some time are already involved in local and national efforts. In addition, there was an acknowledgement that while legislative reform is crucial, so is shifting the culture and perceptions, specifically of race and those returning from prison, who face huge hurdles in being accepted into homes, jobs, and communities.

We live in a time where it’s no longer possible to ignore or deny the dramatic disparities in police stops and sentencing, the searing statistics about the school-to-prison pipeline, the soaring profits being reaped by private prisons, and the reality that significant numbers of people continue to be falsely accused and locked up. As social practice work and social justice struggles become more widespread, the chances of opportunistic artists creating exploitative work that draws more attention (and money) to themselves than the subject matter increases exponentially — the reason for my original skepticism. But the artists on this panel are, by and large, working as much on their art as they are trying to find ways of drawing our attention to a system that’s destroying lives and communities, that prefers to shroud itself in mystery and hide behind our fears. Without continued attention on every front, including from artists, the problem will not go away.

Creative Conversations: Criminal Justice” took place on April 19, 6–8pm, at the Greene Space (44 Charlton Street, Hudson Square, Manhattan).

Alexis Clements is a writer and filmmaker based in Brooklyn, NY. She recently started a podcast, The Answer is No, focused on artists sharing stories about challenging the conditions under which they are...

One reply on “What Role Can Artists Play in Prison Reform?”

  1. i am very excited that someone is continuing to have this conversation. ive worked with prisoners in a playwriting class and am in the middle of proposing work with local prisons for the use of dramatic therapy/role playing/etc.
    i have found that prisoners, in general, are far more likely to utilize creative outlets due to the lack of it in their lives prior, their desire to try something outside their normal routine, and the ability for the arts to promote self-discovery and engage the intellect – which are rare opportunities in prison.
    while i do employ a hopeful outlook and enthusiasm for such projects, it is also appropriate to be skeptical, as some prisoners (perhaps more than ‘some’) know how to ‘work’ people and opportunities to their advantage. but i ask: if it reduces recidivism in even one person, is it worth it?
    thank you for publishing this blog. i look forward to reading more.

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