comments_image Comments

Collaborative Art Fractures Prison Walls

Crossposted on Tikkun Daily By 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.

The months-long workshop process also generated material for other elements of the "What Cannot Be Taken Away" exhibition -- elements that drew viewers into more active participation with the art space and engagement with its ideas. In the center of the room, Bissell and his collaborator Dee Myers recreated an installation they had first used in jail as part of a meditative activity: a spiral labyrinth traced in a rubble of gravel, concrete bits, cinder blocks, and metal. In circling to the center of the labyrinth, which was constructed from broken-down bits of the physical materials commonly used to imprison, viewers traced the steps that those in jail had taken earlier, reflecting on a meaningful insight they had learned from another person and gently placing a stone into a bowl of water at the center to dedicate that teaching to others.

Practices of meditation -- like the walking meditation invited by the labyrinth -- were not only at the heart of the gallery space, they were also at the heart of the workshops that led to the art show. But unlike forms of meditation that draw an individual into a deeply inward-turned state, the meditations used within the families and prisons project were engaged on a deep social level. Bissell said he started off the first workshop in jail by sharing Thich Nhat Hanh's tangerine meditation exercise as a way for the fathers to "release some of the personal burden and shame that people have in being part of the prison system." Just as a single tangerine holds within it the sunlight and rain and tree and gardener that created it, he explained, every incarcerated individual is part of a broader context of a rapidly expanding prison system and a social system of criminalization and punishment that is intertwined with long histories of racism and class exploitation. That first workshop ended with another reflective activity: letter-writing to a real or imagined ancestor on Mylar sheets of mirrored paper, so that participants could look at their own faces while writing to their predecessors, reflecting on their place within a broader social and historical context. The contemplative exercises were not attempts to wipe the mind blank but rather meditations on "histories of disenfranchisement, suffering, and oppression," as well as on our "internal strength, spirit, and power to create a more loving world," according to Bissell's artist statement.
Joe's shadow contains words regarding forgiveness. "I think that forgiveness liberates the anger... It's to help you to find your peace of mind," he writes.

A visionary, critical politics pervaded all aspects of the exhibition, emerging most intensely in the timeline that was included and in the collaborative walls devoted to communal reflection on the prison system. The timeline, created in collaboration with Tanya Orellana, started at the present moment and stretched forward into the past. Weaving together histories of education, incarceration, and labor, it included a constellation of nonlinearly related events, including movements to disarm certain police forces, restorative justice mobilizations, events related to No Child Left Behind, incarceration statistics, the passage of the Rockefeller drug laws, increasing fee hikes at public universities, the Japanese internment, and the coercive institution of Native American boarding schools. On a grey wall nearby, passers-by were offered bright orange tacks to pin up responses to the question "How has the prison system affected your life?" The responses were voluminous and haunting. One respondent remarked on the isolation of being a 4.0 student and "golden girl" who hid the fact that she visited her father in jail every Sunday. Others said:
I didn't want my father to go to prison so I never told anyone what was happening at home. I'm a lawyer who's represented someone on death row. I worry about him almost every day. My brother is in jail for being illegal.
Further down the wall, other questions and prompts appeared: "What is an essential ingredient of community health?" and "Tell a story about a time you have taken an action to stop, address, or prevent violence without calling the police."

"What Cannot Be Taken Away" stirred a deep excitement in me -- an excitement about art as an emotionally and socially healing force; an excitement about art's power to shake us out of our cynicism and start envisioning alternative approaches to public safety, protection, and rehabilitation that do not pack more people into our insatiable and violent prison system; and an excitement about art's potential to haunt our political imaginations weeks after we walk away from an exhibit. The portraits offer a strong example of how art can actually draw aesthetic energy and originality from social/political engagement, rather than lose artistic integrity as a result. It also offers an example of just how accessible art can become, if an artist's willing to break the rules. Since the primary goal of the show was to enable healing, education, and mobilization through visual storytelling, Bissell and his collaborators decided to risk scorn from the art establishment by spelling out the intended symbolism of the images and gestures in each painting (I've included some of these explanations in the portrait's captions in the art gallery). "Art is most helpful to me when it is rooted in dialogue," Bissell said. "The narratives in the stories are really direct, the symbolism was really direct, and that is partly why the art is so powerful. We wanted it to be very accessible." To see more portraits and process photos from "What Cannot Be Taken Away," visit the Tikkun Daily Art Gallery. For more pieces like this, sign up for Tikkun Daily’s email digest orvisit us online.
See more stories tagged with: