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Collaborative Art Fractures Prison Walls

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Crossposted on Tikkun DailyBy Alana Yu-lan Price

The image of a hand pressed against thick glass, fingers outstretched, made its way onto Evan Bissell's canvas because it still haunts one of his collaborators, a young woman named Chey who saw it as a child visiting a jail.

"My dad used to do that when I'd visit him," she wrote in a note to viewers of the "What Cannot Be Taken Away: Families and Prisons Project" at San Francisco's SOMArts space. "The glass was so thick that you couldn't feel any warmth."

Chey chose to include a lotus flower because "the muddier and darker the lotus grows from, the more colorful and beautiful it will be when it blooms."

The collaborative art exhibition, which seeks to open our imaginations to new ideas about why harm happens and how harm can be repaired, is itself a hand pressed to the glass of the prison system, a warm-hearted attempt to create new flows of communication and empathy between people shut inside and people shut out.

The project grew out of months of written dialogue between four fathers at San Francisco County Jail #5 and four teenagers whose own fathers are or were previously incarcerated. Working with the restorative justice organization Community Works, Bissel led workshops in jail with the fathers every Thursday, and the same workshop outside with the students every Sunday. Acting as messenger, facilitator, and art coach, he carried journals and eventually audio letters back and forth weekly for five months between the fathers and the youth, encouraging them all to ask and write about anything that felt important to share. The dialogue was freed, he said, by the fact that the participants were not related, even though they shared the experience of the prison system's harsh effect on family ties: the sense among the youth was, "it's not my dad, so I can ask him anything."

This dialogue, along with solitary contemplative writing and sketching exercises, generated the ideas, images, and words that appear in the show's luminous paintings, which portray the teens and fathers larger than life, their faces bright against swirling dark backgrounds.

"My portrait represents a galaxy of many scares, and a complex reality of strength which is hard to define," Teak writes. The sketch on Teak's orange shirt depicts his son and the names of his three siblings who were violently killed.

At the art space, phone receivers dotted the walls between the portraits, a visual reminder that the fathers and youth whose dialogue fed this project were communicating across distance, across prison walls and age differences. Quotations from the participants' dialogue spilled across the walls in silver paint:

Never once when I was growing up was I asked what I wanted to be.

I can't go back and change what's been done, but I can change the message.

I appreciate all your honesty because it gets me to look at the bigger picture -- which is you guys.

The workshop participants were integrally involved in the artistic process. They planned how they wanted to use body language to tell different parts of their stories, and they took photos of themselves to use as a base for the portraits. They culled narratives, symbols, and images from their journals and sketchbooks, and sketched out proposals for the compositions of the final portraits. Bissell described his role as that of a kind of adviser, offering advice about how to solve problems of lighting, color, and composition. His collaborators used opaque projectors to trace the outlines of the under-drawings directly onto Bissell's canvases before handing them over to him for the final painting process.

Sadie's portrait includes a theater curtain to convey the sense that 'all the world's a stage.' 'I always played a different role around other people. Even my family,' Sadie writes.

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