Prisoners’ Art

Creating a Room with a View: Artworks by Deaf Prisoners

prisoner art at galleryBefore you are a sampling of artworks/images of artworks created by Deaf prisoners from a maximum-security correctional facility who participated in an on-going art workshop. (see more art at https://devartivistunited.wordpress.com/dau-projects/prison-project/)  While life in any maximum-security prison in the US can be brutal, Deaf prisoners experience a place where Phonocentrism, Linguicism and Audism are pervasive, and where they are often targets of harassment and physical abuse.   Yet, amidst such a place, these men have created art, creating also a safer Deaf space—what we call a Room with a View.

Twelve prisoners participated in the workshop; some for the full year, others for only a few sessions before being released, and one before being put in solitary confinement. The art workshops took place once a month for an hour and a half so the artists had to be very patient and flexible when told to stop working, pack up the art supplies and wait a month for us to return.

The facilitators of the workshop did not teach art techniques, but exposed the prisoners to examples of De’VIA works and provided the opportunity for them to meet a few prominent De’VIA artists. We thank Nancy Rourke, Ellen Mansfield, and David Call for being willing to meet with the prisoner artists and for encouraging their work.

While many of the prisoners had no real experience in art, they all gamely experimented prisoner in cellwith drawings and paintings. By our third monthly visit, the classroom and the men themselves began to transform. Through the joint practices of art-making and place-making with their Deaf, ASL-fluent visitors, a brief reprieve in time and space from the daily dangers of being Deaf in prison began to come into being. By this time too, many had discovered the style or medium they felt most comfortable working in. Whether working as individuals or collaboratively, they approached the artworks with seriousness and oftentimes long deliberations.

The artworks here consist of pencil/colored pencil drawings, acrylic paintings, and wall murals. At present, there are three murals in various stages of creation in an educational classroom area of the prison.

flag prison artThe now completed mural, “USA ASL Flag,” is an adaptation of the US Flag with the hand shapes A-S-L aligned down the center in the white stripes of the flag and the sign for STAR repeated in the blue left side of the flag. While the flag was a vision of one prisoner, others assisted in his work.

Another in-process mural, “Metamorphosis,” shows a tree with the images of a caterpillar, butterfly prisoncocoon, and butterfly. The artist of this particular mural has worked diligently and carefully, planning and re-drafting his work. The wall on which this mural is placed has a high window and the butterfly’s path leads upwards to the window.

A final mural, which is still in the early stages, consists of a number of canvases each depicting parts of a huge tree, which will hold a nest and a beehive. In a draft of the work, three eggs in the nest will each have a word consisting of the phrase “Natural Born ASL.”

Screen shot 2015-08-30 at 12.56.10 AM

The artworks exhibit an array of themes. Quite a number of the prisoners drew trees or made them part of the mural works. One of the prisoners we worked with was discussing with another about the color of the bark and branches saying, “Well, I don’t know, I haven’t seen a tree for three years.” These artworks allow us to appreciate the sensory experiences of nature that are severely limited when one is incarcerated and that we often take for granted. One Deaf prisoner in Florida, Felix Garcia has elegantly written expressing this experience:

felix tree note

Screen shot 2015-08-30 at 1.16.24 AMIn other artworks, the men worked to depict personal expression. Both the painting of “Society’s Conflicted” and drawing of the prisoner in his cell communicates how being Deaf in prison feels like being in “a prison within a prison.” The pencil drawing of the cell shows its layout and a mirror–which is used to communicate with other Deaf prisoners whose cells next to his.

Most of the canvas paintings and paper sketches are works by individual artists. One prisoner responded strongly to De’VIA graphic pop style artworks. This artist chose to create artworks proclaiming pride in his language, ASL—a language mocked, ignored and sometimes outright banned in prison systems. Several men made paintings and drawingsH name sign incorporating their name-signs. In the prison, they are known only by their numbers so name-signs become important for asserting their identity.

The murals allow the prisoners to leave behind something that says they were there—to leave a stamp on a place where they have spend days of their lives. Their artworks allow them a space to work on expression– a brief respite from a place that suppresses personal expression.

We believe this is the first time a collection of works by Deaf prisoners has been exhibited in a gallery and is timely given President Obama’s recent concerns related to prison reforms and the advocacy of HEARD, one of this exhibit’s sponsors. Part of the work of HEARD relates to collecting information on Deaf prisoners, promoting access to prison programs/services and in combating Deaf prisoner abuse. http://www.behearddc.org/

There is much work to be done in prison reform particularly with Deaf prisoners. Our time with these individuals has allowed us to see flashes of that light that De’VIA and De’ARTivism inspire—-and it is our hope that viewers will appreciate the artworks and resilience of these Deaf prisoners.

Art in Prison Workshop Facilitators,

Karen Christie, Patti Durr and Rob Tawney