Art opening prison doors and minds: Aldrich holds exhibit featuring prison art
The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum will present an exhibition, “How Art Changed the Prison — the Work of the CPA Prison Arts Program,” on view Jan. 27 to May 27, exploring how the making of art has changed the lives of people in Connecticut’s prisons.
The exhibition’s curator, Jeffrey Greene, an artist and musician himself, has worked with the Prison Arts Program for 27 years, and said the program radically changed how he viewed art.
“I thought about art as this canon of art history and those artists who are coming from schools and exhibiting in museums,” he said. “When I went into prison [to work in the art program], I saw all these people who were making art because they could not help making art, because of who they were in that moment, in that place, because of what they didn’t have, because of what they needed to affirm or reaffirm about themselves or about how they felt about the world outside of themselves … They are making art, and I had never thought about art in that way and it just blew me away.”
Featuring 28 artists, the exhibition comprises visual artworks made in Connecticut’s correctional institutions over the past three decades, borrowed from current and former inmates, private collections, including the curator’s, and from the permanent collection of the Prison Arts Program, which is part of Community Partners in Action (CPA), a non-profit that focuses on behavioral change of both current and past inmates of Connecticut’s prison system, in addition to advocating for criminal justice reform.
Greene said great art comes not from a person saying he wants to be an artist, but a person making art because he is compelled to. The art being made through the prison program is opening up connections and prison doors, figuratively speaking, and changing people’s views of themselves and others. “I’ve been watching people build bodies of work and develop a new perspective, develop a new context, and understand that there are new contexts that they can see themselves in, and who they are isn’t dependent upon themselves in relation to their specific environment.”
“How Art Changed the Prison” examines art’s role in the lives of people in Connecticut’s prison system and how it affect not only inmates but prison staff and visitors.
“If you are making art, if you’re interacting with other people, all of a sudden you start thinking things you never thought before, you start saying things you never said before,” Greene added. “To be making art and then reacting to the work you are making and then continuing, that is where interesting art comes from.”
The bulk of the work on view in the exhibition was created in the artists’ cells using materials requiring minimal workspace and dry quickly, including ballpoint pen, graphite, and colored pencil. Several artists use more traditional prison art media, such as toilet paper, paper, magazines, ramen noodle packaging, soap, thread and yarn.
Greene said the CPA’s Prison Arts Program is one of the oldest in the country, and its mission is to positively and constructively improve the prison environment while promoting empathy, self-discipline, self-esteem, technical and communication skill development, thoughtfulness, and tranquility.
He hopes audiences take away from this exhibition an increased understanding of how complex people are. “We think the way that we think at this moment is the way we’ve always thought and always will think,” he said. “We are always evolving just as people in prison are evolving and learning from their mistakes and learning from their interactions with others. And all of a sudden they have a new understanding of who they are that they can act upon in a positive way in the community.”
The making of art is an important activity that anyone can undertake in any environment and everyone should be encouraged to take on artistic practice to better understand themselves and other people and as well as to develop a sense of curiosity, he added. “We spend so much time looking for what we expect to see rather than have an open mind and look for the unexpected and expect the unexpected.”
A full-color publication, with an essay by the curator, is available during the exhibition.
The Aldrich is located at 258 Main Street, Ridgefield. For more information, visit aldrichart.org or call 203-438-4519.