Dedicated to covering the visual arts community in Connecticut.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Nurturing the creative, positive spirit in prison

John Slade Ely House Center for Contemporary Art
51 Trumbull Street, New Haven, (203) 624-8055
Prison Arts Program Annual Show
Through May 29, 2011

Their bodies may be caged but their imaginations are running free.

Started in 1978, Community Partners in Action's Prison Arts Program is holding its 33rd Annual show of artwork by inmates—and some former—inmates of Connecticut's correctional system. The Prison Arts Program affords inmates a positive, creative outlet for expression, a means to channel pent-up energy, thoughts and emotions in a constructive rather than destructive manner. Community Partners in Action, established in 1875, is dedicated to the successful reintegration of returning inmates into the community. The art program is just one of the many things the organization does. CPA services also include educating clients in life skills, monitoring clients for the criminal justice system, substance abuse counseling and education and overseeing community service commitments. While some of the inmates with work in this show will never leave prison, most will get out. Both for those who remain incarcerated and for those who complete their sentence, the art program offers a way to contemplate their life and possibilities.

That being said, it is understandable that there might be people—particularly family and friends of crime victims—who might take offense at this show. But I think one of the things this show demonstrates is that human beings are complex; our natures aren't black and white. John Slade Ely House director Paul Clabby says the response to the show has been overwhelmingly positive. He notes that many families of inmates have come to the show, which offers them a way to see their loved one represented in a positive light.

As imagery goes, it is a decidedly mixed bag. There is a fair share of kitsch and a lot of work derived from fantasy and tattoo iconography. That makes sense. Jeffrey Greene, who coordinates and manages the program as well as leading some of the workshops, encourages inmates to draw on their imaginations. The inmates create art that references that with which they are familiar. Many of the drawings have a decidedly folk art feel, albeit with an edge.

But much of the work in the show evinces rich, technical skill and an accomplished eye. Two drawings by Vincent Nardone—"Year of the Fin" and "Breakfast Family Style," rendered in stippled ballpoint pen—are vivid recreations of moments in a day back in 1959 when Nardone was eight years old and on his way to go hunting with his father and uncle. There is almost a spookiness to the level of detail: the swirl of reflections on the chrome bumper of the garishly tailfinned 1959 Cadillac and the 1957 Plymouth and 1959 Chevy in the background of "Year of the Fin;" the diagonal rays of sunlight coming through diner windows and the Knights of Columbus patch on the jacket of one customer in "Breakfast American Style."

A diner also figures in another powerful work—Andrew Wilson's "Orange Whip Diner." It's an interior scene of customers at a counter from a perspective behind the counter and in the foreground. Perhaps inspired by the experience of prison confinement, the drawing has a dark, crowded, claustrophobic energy.

Not all the works are drawings or paintings. There are a number of sculptural works, some of which—particularly given that they are made with tight constraints on the materials and tools the inmates have access to—are among the most impressive pieces in the exhibition.

Christopher Blanks' "1987 Mack 'R' Model 6x6 Highway Plow Truck" is just what its title says it is: a scale model of a truck crafted out of paper and cardstock. But it's also more. Blanks resisted any temptation to color the sculpture. Left completely white, the viewer is free to appreciate the intricacies of the form, the attention to detail. This is powerful machinery as ghost-like presence.

Scott Deojay has several sculptural works on both the first and second floors of the Ely House. His "Queen of the Dragons: Gathering of the Bones" on the second floor is stunning. Although fashioned out of paper and soap, it looks like a sword and sorcery fantasy carved out of ivory. "The Dream House," composed of mixed media, is a masterful work of the imagination, a multi-tiered doll's house diorama for which Deojay even created artwork for the walls and faux children's drawings to post on the refrigerator. Deojay is serving a life sentence for the kidnapping and murder of middle-school social worker Judith Nilan in 2005.

Other impressive works:

Kelly Donnelly's "Nameless" and "Where Chakras Meet" are crafted out of sheets of paper towel colored with watercolors and rolled into yarn-like lengths of twine. "Nameless," in particular, reminded me of Van Gogh's "The Starry Night."

John Wagner's "Super Nova" is an almost psychedelically detailed color drawing composed of countless concentric illustrated circles.

Jason Peters' "The Spetuagint—Freedom and Liberty" is a fine point pen drawing of 70 men's faces, mostly African-Americans including Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., over which is drawn the three hands of a clock. Peters is a talented portraitist and a fine draftsman.

• Although Ross VonWeingarten considers himself a Buddhist, he created an Islamic temple out of paper. "Temple" has a deeply contemplative beauty.

The 33rd Annual Prison Arts Program Show will be on view through this Sunday, May 29.

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Blogger zach deojay said...

My dad has good artwork "scott deojay"

4:15 PM


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