Curatorial Projects > The Prison Project (2008)

The Prison Project

February 20 - March 29, 2008
Intersection for the Arts
San Francisco, CA

A group exhibition featuring work by Arthur Huang & Sonia McKenna, Richard Kamler, Mabel Negrete, William Noguera, Plain Human, Robert Stansbury, Sara Thustra, Kelly Beile & Emily Wright, youth art projects by the Imagine Bus Project and San Francisco Art Institute City Studio, material from The AOUON Archive, and work from the inside from The Advocates for Indigenous California Language Survival, Mutual Aid Pen Pal Project, San Quentin’s Arts-in-Corrections Program & The William James Association

If you live in California, chances are you live within miles of a prison. This exhibition takes a broad and varied look at how the California prison system affects us all on a social, economic, and human level. In the past two decades, nearly twenty prisons have been built within the state. With over 173,000 adults currently detained by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitations, and with plans for the construction of more prisons in the coming years, California possesses one of the largest prison populations in the world, second only to the federal government. Approximately one out of every two hundred California residents is behind bars — one out of six of whom is serving a life sentence. At the cost of over $30,000 per year per prisoner, more resources in California are being directed to the prison system than to the educational system. Yet, with prison programs that have had proven, measurable impact on reducing the rate of recidivism continually being cut, there are fewer and fewer opportunities for those on the inside to grow, rehabilitate, and transform. Part of the artistic practice that happens inside prison, and especially in the remaining few programs that bring in professional artists to teach and interact with the prisoners, is the opportunity for reflection and a chance for those inside to show themselves and others that they are something other than just an animal locked up without the ability to observe and reflect beauty and humanity. For many, art is not just a hobby or a luxury, but rather a necessity for survival – mentally, psychologically, and emotionally.

This exhibition is another stop in Intersection's continuing journey exploring the California prison system. In late 2005, a number of artists, activists, and organizations turned up at Intersection with the desire to utilize their creative resources to look at the criminal justice system within our state. Over the past two years, with very distinct artistic and conceptual starting points, each project aimed to consider the effects of imprisonment from different angles and through different mediums, including dance, creative writing, theatre, and music; each intended to unearth diverse narratives that remind us that incarceration affects those both inside and outside of prison, and within these complex layers are human beings, families, and communities. In support, Intersection formulated The Prison Project in order to provide a larger community base through which the depth and breadth of this confluence could be realized. Using our resources and strengths as an arts organization, we have made tangible the profound way that imprisonment manifests and reverberates in our society.

Clothing, in particular uniforms, carries preconceived associations of class, power, and privilege, and the unraveling of clothing allows the viewers a different perspective on the impact of the prison system on society at large. Arthur Huang & Sonia McKenna create three piles of thread, displaying them in an equilateral triangle to demonstrate the symbiotic relationship amongst the piles. The artists unravelled blue denim garments to represent the California adult prisoner population (over 173,000), beige and olive green garments to represent the population of Correctional Officers working within the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (close to 30,000), and multi-colored garments to represent family members directly affected by having someone imprisoned (over 8 and a half million out of a total California population count of 36 and a half million).

Mabel Negrete's project compares and contrasts a day in the life of two siblings - one who lives inside prison and one who lives outside of prison - through written correspondence and through architectural renderings of living space. Fabricating a full plaster wall upon which the artist engraves a letter her brother had written her from inside prison, Negrete inscribes descriptions of daily existence inside a California jail in a manner similar to carving hatch marks on the walls inside. She also creates a to-scale blueprint on the gallery floor of both her own apartment bathroom and the prison cell that her brother is forced to call home, bringing attention to the physical confinement of imprisonment.

Plain Human is organizing a campaign that will symbolize the scope of incarceration in San Francisco and other cities by inviting the public to wear orange on March 11, 2008. Anyone can participate throughout this awareness day by simply wearing the color orange. Instead of wearing our usual outfits we will wear orange articles of clothing. The scope of the outfit is left up to the individual’s capacity; one may wear a high security jump suit, an orange t-shirt, or an orange button. Why wear the color orange? By collectively wearing this color in a public space, we are subverting the silence. Often this color is culturally understood to signify hazard and danger. The same signifiers affect relatives and friends of incarcerated people and prisoners because it creates fear and this causes alienation and shame. Plain Human will facilitate this day of awareness as an exercise to experience, embrace, share, empower, and to simply reveal who we are, persons with a member of our family who has been incarcerated. Unified by the color orange, we will convene and non-violently protest against the abusive treatment of prisoners. We deem this to be true, fair health and environmental conditions for all humans is a Right, not a privilege. Plain Human will set up several full jumpsuits as display (and available for loan on a first come basis), as well as a grid of 1-inch orange buttons that gallery visitors are welcome to take in solidarity with the day of awareness.

Three 8 foot tall lead scrolls from Richard Kamler’s “The Waiting Room” project (1999-2001) will be displayed. On the surface of the scrolls are texts directly from the inside of prison, detailing the security procedures for visitors entering the prison, and the right for prison personnel to conduct body and property searches of visitors.

Using his signature style of intense color, bold geometric shapes, and political content, Sara Thustra will create a series of acrylic paint on panel “portraits” reflecting the state of the California prison system, from population figures, to economical comparisons, to educational spending. These portraits convey information in an extremely accessible manner, subversively using bold colors to underscore the sheer situation the state of California is in.

Emily Wright & Kelly Beile design an informational guide in the form of a zine consolidating a year’s worth of research about the California Prison system, looking at where prisons are located within the state, the composition of California’s prisoner population, health conditions inside, and the complex collision of prison labor and private industry. These info zines will be made available to the public throughout the run of the exhibition, providing a concise source of information and resources.

William Noguera is an artist unparalleled in artistic vision and creative tenacity. From the confines of his 4x10 foot cell on Death Row at San Quentin State Prison, down on his knees, hunched over a makeshift easel erected from his steel mattress frame, he crafts painstaking canvases of chilling beauty and great emotional depth. Three 24” by 26” black ink stippled works on paper, intensely detailed, photorealistic, will be on display. He mixes a couple drops of his own blood into the inkwell before laying down his marks on paper, allowing a part of him to escape the confines of prison through each piece he completes.

Robert Stansbury is a self-taught artist with no previous painting background of any kind. He began painting for the first time in October 1985, and in 1988 was given the first solo art exhibition ever by the Williams James Association. His works are almost exclusively in acrylics on canvas board that imagines landscape as a surreal environment, populated by intensely detailed figures on a miniature scale. He passed away a couple of years ago from health related issues on Death Row.

Featuring artworks from both this year’s and last year’s collaborations within the Mutual Aid Pen Pal Project, a project coordinated this year by BuildingBloc and Intersection for the Arts. Bulidingbloc is collaborating with about 160 people currently on the inside in the California prison system The mission of the program is for people inside prison to share their experiences, stories, and ideas, to have contact with artists and artistically minded people, and to have a chance to collaborate and create with folks on the outside, and for people on the outside of prison to share their experiences, stories and ideas, learn about and from people in prison, and have an opportunity to collaborate with artists and artistically minded people who have been removed from their communities.

Featuring linoleum cuts and paintings from inmates incarcerated at San Quentin enrolled in the William James Association funded Arts in Corrections program, some of which are portraits of the prison grounds and arts workshop area. Bringing the arts to institutionalized individuals is based in the belief that participation in the artistic process significantly affects a person's self-esteem and general outlook on the world. Art workshops teach self-discipline, problem-solving, and concentration through absorption in a specific creative endeavor. The skills acquired through participation in the arts are translated to other aspects of one's life. Art satisfies an individual's need for creativity, self-expression, recognition, and self-respect. The Arts in Corrections program creates a sanctuary where inmates are treated with respect, courtesy and an openness to their unique expressions as creative human beings.

Artists teaching with The Imagine Bus Project at the San Francisco Youth Guidance Center explore the effects of the Prison Industrial Complex with incarcerated youth through an eight-week arts workshop. Discussions around the Constitution, the Black Panther Party platform, and the effects of criminalization on youth will lead youth to create a media production team where they will create a multidisciplinary CD with spoken word, lyrics, and shadow box visuals that will explore where they see themselves when free of the system.

San Francisco Art Institute City Studio projects are a collaboration among East Bay Asian Youth Center, Horizons Unlimited and Opportunity West. It is a program that offers credited art curriculum for teens 16 to 18 years old whose schools may not provide art education. Work to be included in the exhibition include vinyl graphic representations of the prison industrial complex and graphic design proposals in the form of billboard proposals looking at alternatives to the prison industrial complex.