Making the “Unseen” visible

ART GALLERY: New exhibit at Valley is a window to life behind bars.

By Zaida Diaz, Valley Life Editor

OBSERVING - Art Department Chair Eugenia Sumnik Levins (left), and Dean of Academic Affairs Laurie Nalepa discuss the "Orleans Parish Prison, New Orleans, Louisiana" photograph by Richard Ross.Jay Gilliland / Photographer

OBSERVING – Art Department Chair Eugenia Sumnik Levins (left), and Dean of Academic Affairs Laurie Nalepa discuss the “Orleans Parish Prison, New Orleans, Louisiana” photograph by Richard Ross.

“If you could have a window in your cell, what place from your past would it look out to?” This was the question Mark Strandquist asked of incarcerated people.

Upon entering Valley’s art gallery, one’s eye is immediately drawn to a 5’ by 11’ ft. letter, where a prisoner answers Strandquist’s query by stating that his window would look out to his brother’s tombstone in Glenwood Cemetery across from Beacon House field. The letter stands adjacent to a photograph, of the same size, depicting the prisoner’s selected view; appropriately, the work is titled “Windows From Prison.”

From installations of political artwork to photographs of abandoned prisons and much more, “Site Unseen: Incarceration” tackles the theme of imprisonment through multiple lenses.

“It’s a landscape that remains blank in the minds of most [people],” said curator Sheila Pinkel.

The exhibition is part of Pinkel’s “Site Unseen” shows that highlight spaces the general public normally doesn’t witness.

“Site Unseen: Incarceration” includes works of 14 artists, half of which are or have been incarcerated.

“It adds another dimension of power to the show, to include artwork and voices of people who are incarcerated,” Pinkel said. “It was very important to include statements of those people so that their words can be heard too.”

In Strandquist’s project, the subject expresses memories he shared with his brother at the Beacon House field; there they played countless of games together.

“This picture represents life and death. Obviously, you can see the death, but what you can’t see is how much life was lived across the street,” he said. “Me being a realist, I would want to look out this window every day as a reminder of the good and bad of life.”

People often stereotype incarcerated people, however his words tell a different story. One can empathize with the heartfelt letter.

Behind this wall are incredibly detailed ink-pen and colored-pastel works by David Earl Williams, who is on death row at San Quentin State Prison.

In his artist statement, William’s described himself as a “floor-sleeper” because his mattress is situated on the floor of his cell, so that he can use the metal bed-frame as a desk to complete his artwork.

As expressed in the statement, Williams’ work reflects his inner self. “My spirit, thoughts, and dreams inspire me … along with the ongoing self-challenge to enhance upon my god-given abilities.”

His drawing, “Mother and Child,” is perhaps a memory of his own relationship with his mother. The piece depicts an African-American mother and child with their eyes closed and hands raised near their faces. The child’s face expresses sorrow, while the mother’s looks more relaxed; its almost like she’s trying to soothe him. The pop of color in the background provides a big contrast to the ink-pen portrait of mother and child; it’s simply stunning.

There is clearly great care and passion behind each of William’s works.

Toward the back of the gallery one is confronted by various linocut pieces by Brendan Murdock who was previously incarcerated in San Quentin. “In prison, it’s not possible to do artwork which is not political,” said Murdock. “The very act is one of resistance.”

“8th Amendment Cuffed” is an example of Murdock’s views on solitary confinement: he refers to the piece as an overt form of activism. It depicts a prison on the left and what looks like a psychiatric ward on the right with the words “mental illness” across its walls. The barbed-wire walls of the prison and ward meet in the middle with an image of a man in solitary confinement. At the very bottom it states, “The New Death Sentence.”

Prisoners are typically placed in solitary confinement for violent or disruptive behavior; they are put in single-cell confinement for 23 hours daily. Murdock says, “Administrative Segregation [or solitary confinement] is a clear constitutional violation, an insidious exercise of cruel and unusual punishment.”

Murdock’s message is evident: the criminal justice system, as it’s currently designed, needs to be repaired.

It’s political and emotional pieces like these that allow viewers to dig a bit deeper into the lives of incarcerated people. They collectively come together to shape consciousness about U.S. incarceration.

“Site Unseen: Incarceration” will be on display at the Art Gallery (located in the Art Building) until April 23. General Gallery Hours: Monday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Your thoughts?