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NASHVILLE — Tennessee is the buckle of the Bible belt, situated below the state of Kentucky and just north of Alabama. The temptation of fried pies, which I was told grandma made (not my Jewish grandma, however), Elvis statues as tourist attractions, and as many churches as sex shops lined the horizon of my visit to this Southern state. The second night of my stay, I stopped by a show called Unit 2 (Part 1) at Coop Gallery in downtown Nashville. Organized by Watkins College of Art professors Robin Paris and Tom Williams, this exhibition is comprised of collaborations between students and 11 prisoners on death row in the Riverbend Maximum Security Institution, in northwest Nashville.
The project sought to form connections between people on the outside — outsiders, as the prisoners call them — and insiders, the men inside who are scheduled for execution. The work in this exhibition, which includes drawings, paintings, collages, and photographs, presents a heart-wrenchingly honest portrait of our prison system, the people who are in it, and the opportunity for human connection regardless of the grim reality. The idea for this show came from the prisoners.
Unit 2 (part 1) presents two types of artworks: the first is an “add on,” which almost reminded me of the Surrealist exquisite corpse game in which the previous drawing is covered up and the next person draws on, thus adding to the work without knowing what was made before. The “add on” of this exhibition felt more like a continued visual exchange, or an ongoing conversation through drawing and text. These works felt more like ongoing thought processes than finished projects, which added a rawness to the show overall that, as a viewer, was hard to handle at times. The conversation about the prison system in America is an ongoing one, and these visual collaborations are just the tip of the iceberg.
“The system of legal defense for capital cases is shoddy and poorly funded at best; there are no rich people, to my knowledge, on death row,” says co-organizer Robin Paris. “We incarcerate more of our population than any other country. I could go on and on. It’s shameful. It’s not who we think we are as a country.”
The second type of artwork is called “surrogate” and cuts right to the heart of it all. A prisoner on the inside asks someone on the outside to do something on their behalf — something that they couldn’t do because they were in prison. One of the prisoners asked their “surrogate” to go out and gaze at the stars, to enjoy them — he, the prisoner, had not seen stars in 30 years. The outsider then photographed those stars, and the prisoner wrote his text request onto the photograph, which was displayed in the gallery space. Another inmate asked their surrogate to buy a homeless man some food and then let him know that everything was going to be okay. In another photograph, an inmate asked his “surrogate” to create a portrait of him with his family that, were he out of prison, he would have been able to take himself.
“Getting to know these men who, although they may have done a terrible thing, are more than the sum of their worst day,” says co-organizer Robin Paris, “they have taught us so much about community and about the importance of many things we might take for granted. They are people who, through bad luck, poverty, poor schools, bad decisions, are in this place, and it’s not hard to imagine that many of us could be in the very same place, but for our economic privilege.”
According to statistics from the Department of Corrections, there are currently 79 inmates on death row, and all are in for either 1st degree murder or murder 1 charges. One of the men on death row, Donald Strouth, has been there since September 1978. This show was originally hatched earlier this year with an art exhibition called Voices from Solitary: Art from Tennessee’s Death Row, which was initiated by Vanderbilt University’s Lisa Guenther. This is only part 1 of a two-part exhibition, which made me wonder about the sustainability of such an intense collaboration.
“It will go on as long as we can sustain it,” says Williams. “The prisoners’ days are numbered, which is difficult to think about, but we’d like to work with them for a long time,” says Williams. “When you’re working with prisoners on death row, it’s often best to focus on the present.”
Unit 2 (part 1) runs through September 28 at Coop Gallery (75 Arcade Street, Nashville, Tennessee).