Time. This word was by far the most intently discussed, illuminated, and expanded upon throughout Prison Folk a panel discussion accompanying “Post Black Folk Art in America: 1930-1980-2016,” the current exhibition (through January 8, 2017) at Chicago’s Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art, curated by artist and former director of the South Side Community Art Center, Faheem Majeed. In this day and age, art created in true isolation is pretty hard to come by, with a notable exception of works made within the prison industrial complex, where scores of men and women can serve vast lengths of time away from much of the communication and means of connecting that we enjoy in the free world.
As moderator, Majeed was joined by a panel of three local artists with first-hand experience creating and facilitating art in Illinois prisons: Sarah Ross, a multimedia artist, School of the Art Institute of Chicago professor and founder of Prison + Neighborhood Art Project; Marvin Tate, artist, poet and educator, recently awarded a grant from the Poetry Foundation to teach poetry at Illinois’ Stateville Correctional Center; and Jonathon Romain, a world-renowned, Illinois-based artist who began his painting practice while serving 7 years of a 15 year prison sentence. Each of these four artists made a point to pay homage to the legacy of Margaret Burroughs, the artist, writer, educator, and organizer who founded Chicago’s DuSable Museum of African American History and immeasurably impacted the city’s history and the city’s Black community. Burroughs, who lived to be 95 years old, taught art at Stateville up until her death in 2010.
During the conversation on Thursday, November 3, the types of inmate-made artwork touched on two general categories: art objects made with the intention of creating an avenue for individual self-expression and intellectual agency for the incarcerated person, and artworks that are intended for outside the prison walls, to incorporate prisoner’s voices and lived experiences into the larger conversation about incarceration in this country. And obviously, there were plenty of examples brought to the table that were both, or somewhere in between.
In a specific example of the former, agency-building type, Tate recalled an assemblage course he taught at Stateville, in which a man came to class with a shiny piece of material to incorporate into his work in progress. When asked where he’d found such unique media, the inmate explained that he had rubbed the material on the prison’s floor, laboriously working the surface to a high gloss finish. “It’s amazing what the imagination can do, with very little to do it with,” said Tate of this ingenious instance of creative problem-solving that took advantage of the most bountiful of a prisoner’s limited resources: time.
For Ross, who was invited to teach at Stateville not long after Burroughs’ passing, artist collaboration with inmates serves an important purpose in communicating the prisoners’ realities to those of us outside the four walls—specifically the walls of Stateville. “In a different era, maybe 25 years ago, people could have committed the same crimes, but would have had much shorter sentences,” Ross explains. “The people we work with there are a product of a political time in which long prison sentences are the answer to many different situations that we’re seeing in the city of Chicago.” In Ross’ Prison + Neighborhood Art Project, 14-week courses are offered at the maximum security prison, both academic (like political science and history) and artistic (like visual arts and poetry).
Ross spoke often of a notable recent project at Stateville in which she, artists Damon Locks and Fereshteh Toosi, and 11 prisoners spent a year creating conceptual pieces about time. “For us [artists] going in, time is a mad crush—we always wish we had more time,” said Ross of the experience of entering a different reality of time “in a place where time is years and years and decades.” In a snippet of a sound piece Ross played at the panel, men living at Stateville spoke candidly about the different kinds of time in their lives: state time, sentenced time, time to change, how much time is enough time.
For the sole panelist with the experience of having lived both inside and outside of prison, Romain explained that depending on the length of one’s sentence, one’s approach to serving it and one’s outlook differs. “When I was sentenced with 15 years, one of the first thoughts that I had was, ‘if I can go in, do seven years and come out a better person, then that time wouldn’t be lost,’” said Romain. “I felt like I got a master’s degree of sorts, which I was able to turn around and utilize in my life [as a professional artist].”
But Romain was quick to explain that his experience embracing and capitalizing on his artistic talent while inside is not something that should be expected of others entering into a long sentence. “I’m not an example: I’m an outlier,” said Romain, who was a college graduate with a degree in psychology when he was sentenced. “Most of the people who go into prison are broken when they go in, and prison does not fix anything,” he said. “When I went in I wasn’t completely broken, so when I came out, I wasn’t completely broken. That’s the difference between me and the average person who goes to prison.”
For those whom an art program can reach (and realistically, for some, it’s too late), this avenue for expression can help restore a sense of individuality that the prison industrial complex can wipe out. “There’s ways in which the [art]work gives people not just something to do but something to be,” said Ross, whose presentation also laid out the hard numbers about the amounts of people that disappear into in this system: Stateville houses 3,600 men, Illinois has 47,000 inmates, and across the country, over two million are incarcerated. She further explained that even if all non-violent offenders were somehow released tomorrow, there would remain 800,000 people in prisons: “That’s still mass incarceration.” Eventually, the incarcerated individual will find his/herself reentering the outside. To prepare for that, Tate explained the need for empowerment on the inside –to be something other than a person who is in prison.