How Art and Art Education Changed the Prison

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Wilfredo Ramos, Cracker Tin Punched with Holes In the Kitchen Corner, 2017. Courtesy of Jeffrey Greene.

Jeffrey Greene started working with prison populations throughout Connecticut in 1991, and is currently the Program Manager of Community Partners in Action (CPA)’s ‘Prison Art Program,’ where he has worked with over 200 incarcerated individuals by teaching art classes.  Through Greene’s mentorship and support, prison inmates across the state of Connecticut have transformed themselves by building self-worth and making personal discoveries while creating art in communal workshops.

The exhibition How Art Changed the Prison: The Work of CPA’s Prison Arts Program, which is on view at The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, Connecticut, displays works of art by a coterie of inmates throughout the ‘Constitution State.’ The selected works explore potent themes such as social justice, psychology, mindfulness, intersectionality of identity and self-discovery.

When he first started working in prisons, Greene realized that a majority of the artwork being made by inmates featured highly technical and graphic art with cliché iconography that was largely absent of personal expression. He encouraged members in his workshops to focus on more introspective and communicative elements of art. Greene pushed his students to search inside themselves for inspiration and allow themselves to be free from the physical and mental constraints of both traditional fine art (i.e. still lives, generic technique building exercises and other largely impersonal subject matter) and prison.

After 28 years of teaching in prisons, Greene has truly found his stride in encouraging and challenging incarcerated artists to think ‘outside the box’ when making art. Greene’s classes prompt participants to conceive works of art that can expand off the paper and flourish outside of their cells. The results are highly personal and moving expressions, which feel liberated from the harsh realities of prison that these men and women face on a daily basis.

For example, drawings such as Cracker Tin Punched with Holes In the Kitchen Corner and My Brother’s Turn (both 2017), by Wilfredo Ramos, came to fruition through the artist’s intimate memories of childhood and home. Ramos utilizes unique aesthetic perspectives to enhance the overall mood, using an aerial view of the kitchen in Cracker Tin Punched with Holes In the Kitchen Corner and a voyeuristic one-point perspective view in My Brother’s Turn. Both of these images imply the negative relationship Ramos had with his mother, who seemingly exerted physical force upon both Wilfredo and his brother. In the exhibition catalogue, Greene (2019) writes that as Ramos was making these drawings “it seemed like they exorcised something from him. It seemed as if he was putting something in its place. As his drawings got heavier, his mood got lighter.”

Self Portrait Jewelry Box (2016) by Edward Schank, is chock-full of personal expression due to its composition of materials that are captivating both aesthetically and symbolically. The sculptural bust is a self-portrait, which Schank created by cutting up 1,374 packages of ramen noodles and weaving them together. The use of Ramen noodles for Schank’s self portrait is a highly significant statement on identity and the complexities of life in prison. The instant noodles are a very popular prison culinary staple, and are also a choice form of currency for inmates to barter with. In prison, ramen noodles are essentially a metaphor for gold or any precious material, which makes Schank’s sculpture fitting and relational as both a high work of art and a jewelry box, which its title implies. Many prisoners have been enduring a food crisis due to meager portions and cuts in the amounts of meals served per day (Santo & Iaboni, 2015), so ramen noodles are a life force for many inmates because they have both nutritional and economic value.

These are just two examples of the conceptual and emotive work that are realized through CPA’s Prison Arts Program. The exhibiting artists all go above and beyond traditional and generic forms of art that are all too often associated with prison art (i.e. bleeding hearts, clasped hands, eagle talons, etc.), and convey highly personal, poignant and enlightened portrayals of the human spirit and the will to transcend the bleak and alienating conditions of life beyond bars.

A major benefit of a good art educational curriculum, is the long lasting impact that it has on the individual’s psyche and their ability to express themselves to the world in a mature, affecting and profound manner. These artists have been dehumanized via the prison system (see: MDC Brooklyn Has Long Been A Frozen Hellhole. The Polar Vortex Just Made it Worse).

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Edward Schank, Self Portrait Jewelry Box, 2016, 1,374 ramen noodle packages, cut and woven.

It is essential that educational programs, like prison art classes, exist in prisons so that incarcerated individuals retain their sense of humanity and actually stand a chance to be rehabilitated (why call it ‘corrections’ if you don’t actually put effort into rehabilitation?). How Art Changed the Prison: The Work of CPA’s Prison Arts Program features an installation consisting of a 15+ minute audio recording from current and past participants of the CPA’s Prison Art’s Program, whose statements are a testament to art’s facilitation in their ability to embrace ambiguity, make deep personal connections, reflect positively on themselves and exhibit empathy.

The work created by the incarcerated artists in CPA’s Prison Arts Program exemplifies how immersing oneself in deeply reflective modes of creation leads to catharsis and transformation. Furthermore, it allows those of us on the outside looking in to be reminded that we are all worthy of being seen, heard and valued.


How Art Changed the Prison: The Work of CPA’s Prison Arts Program is on view through May 27th at The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum.

Exhibiting artists: Lester Alan, Jon Jay Arnold, Allen Benoit, Michael Caron, Ryan Carpenter, Joseph Castellano, Veronica May Clark, Dennis Coleman, Pedro-Martin DeClét, Mark Despres, Jillian Vasquez, George Gould, Frederick Gunn, Trev Hedge, Michael lovieno, Lee Jupina, Paul Blackman, Kimberly Lebel, Luis Norberto Martinez, Vincent Nardone, Yong Mi Olsen, Nicholas Palumbo, James Pinder, Wilfredo Ramos, Michael Reddick, Jose “Nando” Rivera, David Saucier, Edward Schank, June Seger, James D.E. Scott, Michael Seidman, Lamont Thergood, Ross VonWeingarten and Joseph Wilson.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Greene, Jeffrey. 2019. How Art Changed the Prison: The Work of CPA’s Prison Arts Program. Ridgefield: The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum.

Godoy, Maria. “Ramen Noodles Are Now The Prison Currency Of Choice.” NPR. 26 Aug. 2016. https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2016/08/26/491236253/ramen-noodles-are-now-the-prison-currency-of-choice

Miller, Hayley. “MDC Brooklyn Has Long Been A Frozen Hellhole.” Huffington Post. 6 Feb. 2019. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/mdc-brooklyn-conditions_us_5c59bb62e4b00187b5556cdf

Santo, Alysia and Iaboni, Lisa. “What’s in a Prison Meal?” The Marshall Project. 7 Jul. 2015. https://www.themarshallproject.org/2015/07/07/what-s-in-a-prison-meal#.YnsGJHEPl

2 Comments

  1. Adam, like you, I believe art can change many places given the opportunity. In a world of shrinking thought and heart, the arts offer the possibility of connection and healing. No wonder so many think they are dangerous!
    Thank you for following my blog!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Michael, thank you for your comment. I’m thankful to have come across your blog, I’m really enjoying reading your posts! Art is definitely transformative within our society and its inclusion in all places can have enormous social, emotional and cognitive benefits. I always found it hypocritical that we call prison bureaus ‘dept of corrections,’ when so little rehabilitation and restorative justice actually goes on within these institutions…

      Like

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