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Criminal Justice

'The Pencil Is a Key' exhibition spotlights artwork created by incarcerated people

Greta Rainbow December 27th, 2019
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In 2018, an estimated 5 in 1,000 Americans were employed as professional artists. That same year, there were approximately 7 in 1,000 people incarcerated in American prisons. In states like Oklahoma and Louisiana, that number is more like 10 in 1,000.

The Pencil Is a Key is an exhibition of artwork by incarcerated people, on view at The Drawing Center in New York City through January 5, 2020. Off a cobblestone street in Soho, a few doors down from the Gucci store, is a quiet space of drawings from different centuries, countries, and perspectives, linked by the experience of state-ordered imprisonment.

Some of the work comes from incarcerated people who only started drawing while serving time, like Southern Cheyenne artist Howling Wolf. In the three years he spent at Fort Marion after the 1874 - 75 Red River War against the United States military, he produced color pencil drawings that detailed the ensuing displacement of Native Americans. Some of the work in The Pencil Is a Key comes from familiar names in the contemporary art world, like the sculptor Ruth Asawa. She designed many of the fountains in San Francisco and her wire sculptures sit in the Getty Museum and New York’s Museum of Modern Art. At The Drawing Center, it’s her watercolor of sumo wrestlers that hangs. Asawa was 16 when she made it, interned by the U.S. government during World War II alongside Disney cartoonists who taught her how to draw.

But the show begins with artists detained because of the art they made “on the outside,” providing some context for how creativity is understood within the penal system, starting with 19th-century French artist Honoré Daumier. He was jailed for sedition after La Caricature published his cartoon rendering King Louis-Philippe as a plump pear.

While the flow of The Pencil Is a Key is essentially chronological, it’s such a diverse body of work that it’s possible to compare cloudy figures from history with contemporary makers. The artist Kontonhuang was detained by Guangzhou officials in 2016 for writing graffiti on the city’s walls. For his own safety within the “detention center,” he offered to draw portraits of family members of the “big bosses” or leaders  incarcerated there with him. For his own entertainment, he sketched New Testament Gospel passages that imagined Jesus as a missionary in modern China. Between these artists alone, we can find parallels between the July Monarchy and the Chinese Communist Party: in their definitions of acceptable art practice, and in the satirical escapism artist citizens turn to.

“The overarching theme that has emerged from these drawings [...] is the way in which drawing serves as a vehicle for imagining freedom in the broadest sense,” the show’s curators write. “[They reveal] the way in which the mind can escape intolerable conditions through the act of creative expression.”

Zehra Doğan, an artist and reporter for the Kurdish all-female news agency, JINHA, was explicitly denied drawing materials during her nearly three years in Turkish prison. So she drew on cigarettes packs and her own clothes, with blood and food and dirt. The power of her wide-eyed figures is really their existence. It’s remarkable that we have any of this material at all—remarkable that these artists were able to create under constant surveillance and violation. What strolling exhibition-goers get is a relic from one person’s history.

“If you could create a window in the prison walls, what would you want the world to be able to see?” This was the prompt that artist-activists Lucy Cahill and Mark Strandquist invited incarcerated men and women to respond to for the Windows from Prison project. So it was that hundreds of postcards from prison made their way through the U.S. mail system, not ‘wishing you were here’ but hoping that you’ll think about a lover on the other side of the bars, in the eyes of one artist. Or think about a toilet that never totally flushes, in murky watercolor. Or get stuck on a depthless black rectangle that lets nothing in.

The concept of the prison window was popular in the 19th century too. Neo-impressionist Maximilien Luce drew a self-portrait in Mazas Prison, with a lone window commanding all of the composition’s light. The unseen outside is the radiant subject and Luce slumps in its shadow. A desk is visible too, strewn with books and a quill—a reminder that art-making materials don’t just appear. Being an imprisoned artist often entails some kind of exceptionalism. Marcus Behmer, an artist jailed for homosexuality in 1937, was allowed to work on his art because a prison warden recognized his talent.

Of the drawings in The Pencil Is a Key that were made inside the American prison-industrial complex, none were the result of federal or state rehabilitation programs. While 48 U.S. states offer some sort of arts programming in one or more of their correctional facilities, nonprofits, grassroots organizations and individuals lead this charge. Our nation’s prisons and jails have seen a 500% increase in population since 1980, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Nearly one in nine people in prison is now serving a life sentence, and one in every 28 are sentenced to life without parole. If current trends continue, a Black boy faces a 1 in 3 chance that he will be imprisoned at some point in his lifetime. For white men, the odds are 1 in 17.

The Pencil Is a Key curators write that it is “neither a show about social justice nor about the politics of incarceration, though many drawings included in it address these issues.” Maybe Yassin Mohamed’s imagined flowers blooming in empty rooms doesn’t need to be about President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, or the right to protest in Egypt. But the most arresting inclusions were drawings made by people who are still inside Guantánamo Bay or a Michigan penitentiary. Those can’t be separated from the staggering, toxic reality of mass incarceration.

Artists are still artists, even when wrongfully or unfairly accused. Valentino Dixon was 21 when he was charged with murder. Nineteen years into his 38-and-a-half-years-to-life sentence, Dixon was spending a lot of his time drawing in vibrant color pencil. The warden asked him for a favor: to make a picture of the Augusta National Golf Club course to hang in his house. It’s stunning, and the attention Dixon received for his art led to investigations into his case. He was released for wrongful conviction after 27 years. But freedom shouldn’t be contingent on talent.

We might imagine a pencil that also functions as a key for us, on the outside. Imagine a key for people with the privilege to use drugs or to immigrate to a new country without fear of imprisonment, who might stop in to The Pencil Is a Key between lunch at Balthazar a few streets away and online order pickup at NikeLab around the corner. The postcards commissioned by Cahill and Strandquist, and The Long Term, a video of animated sketches and voices that describe the impact of long-term sentences on the artists and their families, are tools. The success of Ear Hustle, a podcast made entirely inside San Quentin State Prison that tells the stories of people incarcerated there, has been huge. These works address voters and possible changemakers, getting us thinking about rehabilitation and creativity in prisons or about dismantling the entire oppressive structure. Understanding is essential to the process of reform. What art communicates is the feeling of being in jail. No amount of abysmal statistics can do that.


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