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A 40-Year Initiative Brings the Art of Maximum-Security Prisoners to the Museum

“Those capable of the worst are capable of the best,” says curator Jeffrey Greene. “Anyone can be an artist.”

James Pinder, “Outside Looking In” (2016), colored pencil on Bristol board (all images courtesy the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum)

The supplies stay the same, it’s the students that change.

For more than 40 years, the Community Partners in Action’s (CPA) Prison Arts Program has provided thousands of Connecticut state prisoners with art lessons. Celebrating CPA’s advocacy for community-building and criminal justice reform, the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum has mounted an exhibition featuring the work of 28 current and former inmates who engaged with the initiative.

Originally named the Prisoners’ Friends Society, CPA was founded in 1875 by a group of social reformers, including Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) who sat on the organization’s first board of directors. The initiative’s Prison Arts Program began in 1977, and Jeffrey Greene joined the project in 1991; he now serves as the program’s manager.

“We hope to enable inmates to transcend the prison environment and to move past stereotypes,” Greene explained to Hyperallergic via email. “These workshops are organized as art collectives, with group and individual critiques and meetings.”

This past year, the CPA Prison Arts Program worked with 227 inmates in prison and 24 former inmates. Greene says that this is about average for the program, which also hosts an annual show each spring featuring over 600 artworks from over 150 inmates. Additionally, the initiative publishes journals of art and writing, organizes mural and recording projects, and helps develop other health-education goals.

Vincent Nardone, “Bitter Cup #36” (2011‒12), graphite on paper

How Art Changed the Prison — the Work of CPA’s Prison Arts Program at the Aldrich Museum derives its art from current and former inmates, private collections (including that of Green, who curated the show), and the CPA’s own permanent stash. The majority of works on view were made by artists in their cells using materials that require minimal workspace, dry quickly, and can be stored immediately. Some artists have used traditional tools like ballpoint pens and colored pencils; others choose improvised prison staples including
toilet paper, ramen noodle packaging, Q-tips, and floor wax.

Although prisoners are not being paid for work included at the Aldrich Museum, they regularly have the opportunity to sell their art at each year’s Annual Show. Greene says that “the artist receives 60% [of proceeds] in their inmate account, 25% goes to a fund to pay the postage to mail everyone’s artwork to loved ones,” and another “15% goes to the Commission on Victim’s Services’ ‘Victims Compensation ’”

An exhibition like How Art Changed the Prison humanizes the incarcerated for audiences who might have little contact with people caught inside the criminal justice system. “I’m locked alone in a maximum-security prison dining hall with thirty inmates for two hours every two weeks,” Greene writes in the show’s catalogue. “It would not work if I did not engender (and feel) real trust. I care. They care.”

Michael Seidman, “Resistors” (2018), pen, colored pencil on paper

Michael Seidman is one former student included in the show. An inmate at Brooklyn Correctional Institution whose prison sentence is about to end, he began his artistic practice by sketching designs for a puzzle website he plans to publishing upon his release. For the year-and-a-half that Greene worked with him. Seidman embarked on an ambitious array of brilliantly chromatic drawings with intricate game rules and deciphering codes. He built three-dimensional puzzles from paper fold-outs and even designed one that would be large enough for a billboard advertisement.

Veronica May Clark, “Brooklyn Banks” (2015), pen on paper

There’s also Veronica May Clark, who joined CPA’s Cheshire Correctional Institution workshop in 2013 as Nicholas, a young former professional skateboarder serving a life sentence. The first Connecticut inmate to undergo transgender hormone therapy, Clark slowly realized her gender identity through the work she did in art class. Incredibly complex and filled with thousands of microscopic markings that form a mosaic of smaller scenes, the drawing represents the great complexities of the artist’s life.

Advocates of the criminal justice system often claim that the goal of incarceration is to rehabilitate criminals. Yet, research indicates that the pipeline to corrections facilities is filled with systemic biases against people of color and individuals affected by drug addiction, poverty, and mental illness. With an estimated 2.3 million people behind bars, the United States is the world’s biggest jailer. Data compiled by the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) also indicates that the average longest time served in prison has risen to 10 years since 2000. Worse, 8.5% of the total state and federal convicts are housed in private prisons, which have consistently strapped inmates for cash and cut educational programs — all while creating dangerous conditions for guards and prisoners to navigate.

“In the oppressive environment of the prison,” Greene says, “[prisoners] need something that they control; they need to express and confirm that they are still themselves; they need to send out into the world something that states their wish to love and be loved.”

Nicholas Palumbo “FORGIVE” (2015‒16), cut Bristol board on cardstock
Lee Jupina, “Game Day” (2015), pen on Bristol board

How Art Changed the Prison — the Work of CPA’s Prison Arts Program, curated by Jeffrey Greene, continues through May 27 at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum (258 Main Street, Ridgefield, Connecticut). 

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