Impressions at a Prison Art Exhibition
They don't let prisoners out to show the art they produce behind bars. So the public is not privy to the pain and the glory of prisoners' experience. Too bad, because it might hasten overdue prison reform.
Rehabilitative programs are rare in prison. "Real" art supplies are impossible to buy "inside", or too expensive. So inmates use toothpaste and shampoo mixed with powered colored pencil lead or ground up M & M candy shells for pigment. Sometimes their canvas is brown paper torn from rolls in the prison laundry. Other media comes from scraps of magazine art or photos sent from loved ones. Art critics say that the best of prison art is in a class of its own, filled with raw honesty, and unsullied with parroted styles from the art world.
Here's a website devoted to Oregon artists behind bars. Through the work of two women, some of the artists are finding traction in the "outside" world. Three of them, all "lifers", are being featured alongside the work of David Slader, an artist with a law background defending victims against abusive Catholic priests in the Portland archdiocese. Here's the website for Gallery 114, in Portland's trendy Pearl District where the exhibit is housed. And here's a podcast of an interview done on Oregon Public Radio, with Slader and one of the prison artists, talking about the symbolism and redemptive quality of their work.
Three impressions grew in me as I attended the exhibit opening and in the following days:
1. The small gallery got hot and crowded with enthusiasts on the 90 degree afternoon in NW Portland. While probably not intended, I began to feel some of the suffocation and oppressiveness of small spaces with few exits felt by those incarcerated.
2. Prison artists take it upon themselves to heal and grow. They get little or no encouragement from the "system". In many respects, those men and women are models for a society creating its own life sentence with obesity, hypertension and substance abuse.
3. Despite plenty of research and modeling of effective methods of "corrections" in other countries, the US continues to operate prisons in a manner developed in the middle ages. Deprivation, isolation, humiliation, torture, malnourishment; punishment instead of rehabilitation. If the public knew what goes on in prison - the racism, sexism, chauvinism, sadism and oppression - they would perhaps be outraged.
If society awakens from its stupor, it may discover that some of the people locked up are more mature and accountable than those to whom we entrust our government offices. Leave it to the artists to point the way to the problem, some of whom show uncommon ability for a vision beyond.