I had the opportunity to jury an art exhibit at the Federal Corrections Facility Medium Security Unit this month . I passed my NCIC check with no problem then was told all the list of things that I could not bring with me to the prison on the day I was to be the juror of the show. Already the oppression of censorship is welling up in me, I am sure this will be a duty rather than an experience to remember. The day comes and I drive up and the building looms ominously into view, it is huge, gray,stark, almost windowless and immediately I feel claustrophobia setting into my mind. It looks oppressive but at the same time rather intriquing. I was scanned, ID checked, wanded and then stamped on the arm like a piece of Grade A meat.
We then entered through what can best be described as a chamber with floor to ceiling steel gates forward and aft, we are told to relinquish our ID's to a lady behind a thick glass wall ( I am apprehensive to do this but do so just the same) and then we are scanned again and the gates open. We walk across the courtyard which is nothing more than the large open air space between the buildings there are not many windows here either, but the buildings do have numbers on them which is interesting to see against this cold gray exterior.
Most everything here is about anonymity and I am thinking how in the world does art flourish here. I am now feeling sure the art I will see in the exhibit will be dominated by emotions of entrapment, sadness, aloneness, etc. I tell myself, you will have to just look for the honest emotion in the work and juror on the design, emotion and skill level of technique of each piece. When we enter the room, I am met with work that is astounding, then I realize I have seen most of it before. I turn to the inmates and ask them how they came up with the subject matter that they painted. I have to say there were some really amazing copies of other artists' work. They told me they have no access to the world of art other than through art magazines and books that they acquire and that they have no instruction or guidance other than what they read, so they copy the photos of the art in the magazines. Wow, I am thinking how do you jury a show of predominately great designs, because they are all with the exception of maybe three pieces very accurate copies from art magazines. I come the conclusion everything can be a learning experience and this should be no exception. I ask each of them to stand by their work and give me the opportunity to talk with them about their work. I ask simple questions such as why were you drawn to this artist's work, or what part of the process did you enjoy the most or the least. I then tried to take each piece and discuss the underlying design of the piece and how it could be used in something that would be more original to the inmates themselves. They could use objects in their limited surroundings to create paintings that would express their world and their thoughts. I gave them some ideas of ways to use everyday objects in creative ways and also to paint each other. I also cautioned them about the copyright that an artist has on their original work and that you cannot reproduce an artist's work and sell it or enter it in shows without the artist's permission etc. In the end the overall feeling from this group of artists was an overwhelming gratefulness to talk with someone about not just their art but art in general and get some honest feedback and discussion. I was told they are allowed to paint most of the day without much interruption. I told them this is the dream of most artists, to be able to paint all day and not have to deal with the interruptions of everyday life. There were two artists that did create work that was not copied but done from their minds and their hearts; and in the end, I and the panel of jurors all agreed theirs was special and deserved the awards. The other artists were very supportive of the winners and seemed genuinely thrilled for them. The two awards were nice new wooden boxed sets of paints. I believe we all got rewarded just from the experience itself.
You never know what doors you might open or close, if you never grab the door knob. I am glad I got this opportunity to share my art knowledge and thoughts with this group of artists and that they shared theirs with me. I was inspired by their commitment, knowledge, and skill level and I look forward to seeing their work in the future. I could only think as left the prison that day, it is true cool grays do bring out and intensify the colors in life.
Thanks for reading my blog and I hope you have a great week.