If the purpose of art is to inspire, then the upcoming “Artists in Absentia” exhibition at Madison’s Central Library is already a smashing success. It has inspired the prisoners whose work is represented, the instructors they worked with behind prison walls and the folks who pulled the show together. This isn’t just an art display, they all agree. It’s a tool for changing public perceptions.
“I learned that individuals who have been deemed criminals in the eyes of society are capable of making me laugh and making me think,” says Spring Greeney, a history grad student at UW-Madison who co-taught an art class at Oakhill Correctional Institution that generated some of the pieces in the show.
“Life is long, and the person you are one moment in your life is not the person you are later in your life,” adds Elizabeth Scheer, a doctoral student in English who co-taught the class.
Greeney — who first met Scheer at art camp when they were teenagers growing up in western Massachusetts — says the exhibition underscores how creative experiences are able to transform both the artist and the audience.
In addition to paintings and drawings, “Artists in Absentia” includes poetry and other writing, video snippets from prison drama classes and recorded music — from rap to heavy metal to love songs (including one to Jesus Christ). All were produced at Oakhill Correctional Institution, a minimum-security prison on the outskirts of Madison, in the village of Oregon. The prison, a former reform school for girls, looks very much like a liberal arts college campus. It even has a music room equipped with electric guitars and drums.
The Madison Public Library will host the exhibition from March 3 (opening reception 6 p.m.) to March 31; then the works go on the road to other libraries.
As part of the project, local filmmaker Marc Kornblatt has produced a series of short videos (see refugefilms.net/artists-in-absentia) showing work from the represented artists, as well as a 21-minute documentary that will air a few times during the exhibition, including at the opening.
Kornblatt, whose previous work includes the hour-long documentary Dostoevsky Behind Bars, also shot at Oakhill, takes a long view of the exhibition and of its transformative potential. “It’s not really just about arts,” he says. “It’s about social justice. It’s about giving voice.”
He plans to shoot fresh footage at the opening to add to the film. That’s in part so that the show can be experienced by the artists, most of whom will be locked in behind barbed wire fences miles away. “The film was born out of a desire to give them a place at the exhibit,” he says.
José Vergara, a UW graduate student in Slavic languages and literature who helped organize the show, realized over his years of volunteering at Oakhill that “there was some amazing work these guys were producing, and some of them were really talented. I just wanted to share it.”
The goal, he stresses, is not to advocate for prison reform but to let the public see “a different side of the prison system,” one where inmates are allowed to express their humanity through the humanities. “They really do want to be heard and be seen, to show their creativity, to show they are doing something constructive and useful at this tough time in their lives.”
The pieces for the exhibition came from the Oakhill Prison Humanities Project, which works with Madison-area educators, including UW graduate students and staff, to teach classes in literature, writing, drama and art. A brochure for the program stresses its value as a corrective tool, saying classwork and assignments “improve communication and literacy skills that prove crucial for successful reentry into the workforce upon release,” and noting that educational programs have been shown to reduce recidivism.
In Dostoevsky Behind Bars, then-Oakhill warden Daniel Westfield elaborates: “Ninety-eight percent of these people are going to be returning to the community as our neighbors. I think society would probably be much worse off if we were not to provide educational opportunities and programming.”
Vergara notes that what’s happening at Oakhill is part of a national trend. “More and more terrific prison education programs are popping up,” he says. “People are paying attention to this issue. There’s been the slow reintroduction of Pell Grants for inmates, and the Obama administration clearly wants to reform the way we approach incarceration.”
A directory produced by the Education Justice Project, run out of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, lists more than 90 programs throughout the U.S. Two are in Wisconsin: the Shakespeare Prison Project at the Racine Correctional Institute and the Oakhill Prison Humanities Project. The program in Racine is a partnership between the prison and UW-Parkside. It produces an annual Shakespeare play as well as “original autobiographical performances” by inmates.
Rebecca Ginsburg, Education Justice Project director, says there are many other prison arts and education programs that did not make her group’s list. It included only larger programs that operate mostly independent of departments of correction. She applauds the Oakhill exhibit for “bringing out the voices and expression of people behind bars and making them more visible and present” to others.
The Oakhill Prison Humanities Project launched in 2013, using grants obtained by Judith Kornblatt, Marc’s wife, emeritus professor in the UW-Madison Department of Slavic Languages and Literature. It built on various course offerings that UW-Madison graduate students had been providing at the institution for years. Currently the program is offering five classes: a history class on 20th-century migrations, a narrative class featuring works by writers including Anne Lamott and Gertrude Stein, a fiction reading class, a drama and performance class and an introduction to philosophy.
Lois Davis, a senior policy researcher at the RAND Corp. who has studied the impact of prison education programs, recently told National Public Radio, “This population is one with low education attainment. About 40 percent of [prisoners] lack a high school education. Sixteen percent of state prisoners have a high school diploma. Education can have a huge effect in really helping them to gain the skills they need and prepare them to be employed.”
Claire Mason, a doctoral student in the UW-Madison theater department who serves as coordinator of the Oakhill Prison Humanities Project, calls the inmates “incredible students who constantly encourage me to rethink my own understanding of the scripts and performances brought to class.” She says the experience has taught her to “carefully examine the structures of our society and the emotional and spiritual freedom one can find in imagination and play.”
Greeney and Scheer taught a class every Wednesday night last fall for 15 weeks. Both received special training and had a device they could use to summon guards, who were not in the room. “We had no idea what we were getting ourselves into,” Scheer recalls. But “any feelings of trepidation evaporated pretty quickly.” As the documentary shows, the inmates are attentive and grateful students, eager to learn.
Their class, which involved writing as well as producing drawings and paintings, sought to get inmates to use art to rethink their personal narratives. One exercise was to create visual alternatives to their mugshots — which, Scheer says, “too often becomes the culture’s sole image of that person.”
One of the pieces to emerge from the class, by inmate Michael K., portrays a grinning face amid swirled text messages including “I live life like the captain of a sinking ship,” with teeth made up of letters that say “God Loves Ugly.” In a letter from prison, Michael K. says the piece was produced using pens, lead and colored pencils, Sharpies and water colors. He has done some painting in the past but it was with “spray cans, using buildings and other structures as canvass.”
Another painting, “Past, Present, Future: Dreamer and the Dreamed,” by Ryan B., includes images of a sleeping man, a broken heart, and a mother and child being embraced from behind by a figure represented in dotted lines, not really there. Ryan B. writes that it is “My attempt to illustrate how personal tragedy begins with the breakdown of family and community ties. And just as importantly, how the hope for ‘someday,’ where love lives, endures.”
The arts class at Oakhill was not the first time Ryan B. has painted. That was in kindergarten with fingerpaint, and he remembers it vividly: “The idea of being able to move color around amazed me!” He praises his instructors at Oakhill for their “compassion and insight.” He writes in his letter that, “for art to happen, three elements must be present, regardless of ratio.” He supplies a diagram:
Being included in “Artists in Absentia” is a big deal to Ryan B.: “To have a voice, and to possibly be heard. To be understood. It means everything.” He ends his letter with a P.S.: “Wish I could be at the show!”
This is art produced within a prison, subject to prison rules. All of the pieces in the exhibit had to be approved by Oakhill officials, says Kornblatt, who needed three signed releases from everyone he filmed. Two pieces were rejected, including a song that made reference to a shotgun. The song was about making good choices, Kornblatt notes, but the decision to exclude it wasn’t challenged. As he puts it, “When you’re in behind bars, you play by their rules.”
The documentary explores this theme, noting that inmate artists self-censor while also testing the limits of what they can do. A volunteer instructor explains that John G., the inmate whose song was rejected, was “trying to figure out what that line is between what is going to get allowed and what’s not.” Then John G. belts out a shattering song about what it’s like to be in prison.
“Talking to the walls, the bricks you count them all,” he sings. “It’s concrete floor and pacing, and thinking more of what went on before. I hit the concrete floor.”
Also in the exhibition, as both written text and a recorded reading, is a poem called “Free,” by Andron L., in which he longs to be “Free of my cage that holds me in this place of pain / caged like a bird whose wings have been clipped / longing to fly” and comes around to realizing “This cage — has a door!”
Some of the art deals with other themes, like a terse essay from Michael B., a Native American, about past efforts to separate Indigenous children from their language and customs: “Your intent was to get us to forget our identity.”
And then there’s the clip from a drama class in which an inmate playing a young girl asks, “Daddy...how much longer until we can be a family?” “Five more years, baby,” he answers. “Five more years.” “That’s it?” she answers. “Five years isn’t very long.”
Another video short features an inmate named George A., talking about how he overcame his insecurities about his artistic ability: “When I first started class, I sat between two of the best artists in the whole joint. It’s just like when you were going to school, and you sit next to the smartest kid in the school. And, ah...you get a little intimidated. For a while that kind of bothered me, but then I began to use that as a challenge. During the course of trying to work through it, I started having fun.”
George A. contributed a visual work he called “Sleeping Beauty.” It’s a beautiful black swan, with finely rendered feathers, resting on snow, accomplished by drawing white lines on a black sheet of paper. As he notes in the video. “It turned out okay.” Greeney agrees, recalling the praise George A. bestowed during the final class: “You made me want to try.”
In response to written queries from Isthmus, Terrence K. — who contributed a self-portrait of himself as he imagines he’ll look as an old man — relayed his thoughts on the exhibit through his mother, via phone: “Everybody has art talents, somehow, if they would just believe in themselves and give themselves a chance.”
Scheer and Greeney had planned to teach new classes at Oakhill early this year, but those plans fell through. Nevertheless, they both say their experiences at the prison have proven life-changing.
“I’m interested in a possible career as an educational officer at the Department of Corrections,” Greeney says. Scheer doesn’t miss a beat: “Me, too.”
Spring Greeney (left) and Elizabeth Scheer, UW-Madison graduate students who taught art classes for inmates.