By Dianne Frazee-Walker
Before the painting program was adopted into the prison system in 1994, the only art displayed inside America’s correctional institutions was graffiti.
Today the legacy of inspirational expressions by inmates lives on.
William Borden, a former inmate walks through the narrow hallways of Eastern State Prison located in Philadelphia. Borden recalls the barbaric atmosphere of the prison when he first arrived for a brief sentence in 1967.
The medieval dungeon style penitentiary has gone through a transformation since the time it depicted a punitive environment that inmates feared. The prison has been converted into a museum.
Hand painted milieus now embellish the walls of prisons throughout the country that once confined prisoners who resided the buildings as punishment for their deviant crimes. Provincial cityscapes both conventional and fantasy decorate visiting rooms. Photographs of inmates are inserted into the scenery as mementos for family and friends.
Filmmaker, David Adler is a collector of selected art work of the outside created on the inside. Adler is sharing with the public his unique collection through November 30, 2013 at Eastern State Penitentiary, the museum that was once a prison. Adler’s collection is appropriately named “Visions of the Free World.” The museum is visited by everyone, from art enthusiasts to former guards and inmates.
A dark dingy cell is renovated into a tiny movie theater. For the first time since the 60s nature is brought in from the outside as a slide show that displays everything from mountain scenes to tropical sunset beaches. Photos of inmates in orange jumpsuits and white tee-shirts are placed in front of the backdrops.
Artists create impressions of the world they long for. All of the art work is an expression of the dreams inmates had of the outside world.
Former inmate, John Toth recalls as he is viewing the exhibition, “You never forgot what the outside was,” he said. “It was a haunting memory. It haunts you every day, all day, every night, all night.” Inmates were able to fabricate the bleak situation they were in by having their picture taken in front of the landscaped backdrops.
Adler, the collector who is also a writer and documentary producer was on a presentation assignment at a women’s prison in upstate New York when he discovered the first piece of art he began collecting. Adler’s original mission was to present his films about American culture, which he made for British television. When his eyes focused on a cityscape of a Manhattan painting in the visiting room it was love at first site for Adler.
It was during this trip to the prison that Adler discovered “Click Click,” an innovative prison program. “Click Click” consisted of offenders painting images on walls or canvas. Hired inmate photographers click pics that are sold to other prisoners for $1to $5 each.
When Adler did the math he learned the “Click Click” project had the potential to be quite profitable. A staggering 2.3 million Americans were incarcerated in 2010. Adler also discovered “Click Click” had expanded nationwide and found out the number of photos taken each year was quite prolific.
The “wow factor” declared by Adler is “here’s a whole art system, possibly the largest unknown art culture in America, operating in parallel to the mainstream art system.”
Adler began marketing the art work by contacting inmate artists and asking them to donate their photographs for exhibition.
The response from inmates was overwhelming, but finding places to exhibit the art was a challenge. The reasons the art was not as popular as Adler expected is the backdrops were too traditional and elementary, and the photographs of inmates were too jovial. Curators desired a more sinister “mug shot” look from the prisoners.
In 2010 Adler’s art collection experienced a turning point, when Aperture Magazine featured an essay and photographs about the collection. Director Athens Biennale was so impressed with the magazine photos that he invited Adler to exhibit at a dilapidated school. The 2011 exhibit is what led Adler’s collection to its first American show, “Prisoner Fantasies.”
Last summer “Prisoner Fantasies” was displayed at the Clocktower Gallery in SoHo where it got rave reviews.
Adler’s collection has now grown to 275 photographs, hundreds of letters, and a limited selection of backdrops that are shown at Eastern State Penitentiary.
Sean Kelly, the director of public programming at the museum is inspired by Adler’s collection because of its unique theme that renders an authentic outlook on prison life.
Nicole Fleetwood, an associate professor of American studies at Rutgers University, is researching the collection for a book about visual culture in prison. Fleetwood, an African American from a modest background in a small mid-west town is especially taken by the collection because she has had family members incarcerated. She appreciates how the photographs appropriately fit into a family album and how mass incarceration and long-term sentencing are illustrated.
Nicholas Burham, 29, who is serving 16 years for second-degree murder has taken his interest in drawing as a child and dabbling in graffiti as a teenager to a higher level. He spends most of his time pursuing brushwork and acrylic painting. Burham is now employed as an artist at Stafford Creek Corrections Center in Aberdeen, Washington, and is paid a handsome $55 a month for his work and teaching other inmates.
Patrick Glebe, prison supervisor at Stafford Creek acknowledges a change in attitude from the inmates who participate in the art and photography program. He brags, “The end result is better behavior.” When families see the work in the visiting room,” he said, “it is inspirational. It kind of lightens it up.”