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Creativity in Confinement
Susan Phillips

In the polished lobby of a West Philadelphia corporate headquarters, 116 pieces of art hang amidst the comings and goings of suits and ties. None of this would be unusual except all of these works were created within the confines of U.S. prisons. A woman in scrubs stops to look, calling over to her friends. “Look at these,” she says. “When my step-father was in prison, he had one of these handkerchiefs painted for my mother.”

Handkerchiefs, envelopes, toothpaste, coffee grinds, shoe polish, Kool-Aid, potato chip bags. These items comprise the prison artist’s pallet. And with more than two million people now incarcerated in the U.S., it’s no surprise that a good portion of the workers walking through the Esther M. Klein Art Gallery in the lobby of Philadelphia’s University City Science Center has a friend or family member in prison, suit or no suit.

The exhibit, subtitled “Creativity in Confinement,” has demonstrated one thing if nothing else: where three strikes rules, drug laws, mandatory minimums, and all the other tag words of the commonly defined prison-industrial complex get lost in the haze of daily life, art demands to be seen and heard.

“Art is much more engaging than statistics,” says Barbara Hirshkowitz, a Philadelphia Books through Bars Collective member who provided the artwork for the show. “You can tell people endlessly about the prison system, and I don’t think it has much meaning. Art is powerful in a way that information is not.”

Books through Bars, a books-to-prisoners program that has been operating for more than 10 years, started accumulating a collection of prisoner art as soon as they started sending books inside prisons. Artwork on envelopes and handkerchiefs, the few canvasses available to prisoners, came flooding into the Books through Bars office as appreciation for free books (another rare commodity in most prisons).

After accumulating boxes of artwork, Hirshkowitz decided that sharing this artwork with the public served as a better activist tool than simply telling people “prisons suck.” Volunteers eventually framed their favorite pieces and sought gallery exposure, creating a series of “Con-Texts” art exhibits.

“My goal is to get people to think about who’s in prison and what it means to have thrown so many people into this experience and then totally ignore the results of that,” Hirshkowitz says.

The guest book comments from the latest exhibit indicate that Books through Bars has hit its target. One popular piece by Texas prisoner F.W. Florez features a collage of a ’50s era couple in an embrace. “Are you human?” asks the man in a cartoon bubble. “No, I’m a prison guard,” replies the supplicant woman.

“I laughed out loud,” wrote one gallery patron in the comment book.

Daily prison life is something that most of us would not want to spend much time thinking about. But if we did, the stereotypical images that might come to mind are bad food, abusive guards, and sexual assault in the shower stalls. But these artists take us beyond the clichés and into a world where some of the simplest tasks involve not brutality necessarily, but constant humiliation. Sherry Ann Vincent’s “Strip Shack” portrays a trip to the showers. A pencil sketch details shame in the women’s faces as they hold their prison uniforms close to the chests of their naked bodies. In the center of it all, a prison guard stands with a look of disdain.

Christopher S. Sohnly’s illustrated poem “Morning Yard” uses a similar matter-of-factness to illustrate another day in the life of a prisoner-artist.

Little birds
In the razor wire
The clink of lifting weights
Raucous voices playing cards
A guard teasing me about my drawing
Long shadows in mud print like footsteps on the moon
Gift of a white feather found
Our shadows reach through the fences
Toward freedom
Morning yard

Producing art while in prison is no easy task. Aside from the lack of materials, in some units the prison administration considers a decorated envelope or handkerchief contraband, and prisoners can find themselves in the hole if caught with one. Nevertheless, Book through Bars has accumulated enough art to have produced 12 shows over the past four years. The shows have a practical element; they raise money for the organization, as well as spread a message.

“This has been our best outreach tool,” says Hirshkowitz. “We raise money, recruit volunteers, get book donations, and we have access to a much larger public.”

But when Hirshkowitz organized a conference for other books-to-prisoners programs this past fall, she found it hard to engage volunteers from other programs to commit to new art exhibits. “They were overwhelmed by the amount of books they had to send and couldn’t think of taking on another project,” says Hirshkowitz. But by keeping those envelopes and handkerchiefs sealed up in boxes, they may be missing the opportunity to become more effective activists.

“I see art as very life affirming,” says Hirshkowitz. “Even if the art is oppressive or hard to look at, the act of creating is affirming of the human spirit. I think sustained activists and deeply committed artists have a similar place inside themselves where they draw their courage. Artists and activists tap the same source. It keeps you going, gets you through difficulties, lets you do something new and untried.”

One refreshing and disarming aspect of “Creativity in Confinement” is that one rarely gets the impression that any of these artists sat down and tried to create a piece that would change someone’s mind. They have in common a careful attention to detail borne out of long hours of endless time. They simply reflect their environment, both external and internal, without any hint of pretension, ingeniously using whatever materials they have. In this way they are effective, their images provocative and believable.

“I don’t know if anyone in the show is making art to change the world,” says Hirshkowitz. “But they’re certainly trying to change their own lives.”

And in doing so, they have power to change ours.

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