Exhibition of Prisioners' Paintings

Each year, The Fortune Society—an ex-prisoner advocacy group—holds an exhibition of art created by inmates. The fifth annual "Insider Art" show is taking place this week at the Lab Gallery of the Roger Smith Hotel at 47th Street and Lexington Avenue. It was curated by Graham Nash, from the band Crosby, Stills and Nash. Alicia Zuckerman has more.

AZ: The paintings, drawings and collages hanging, unframed, from butterfly clips against white walls, are by inmates doing time in about 20 prisons across the country. Many of the works depict a kind of escapism. A lot of the images are of nature, of women, of life beyond the prison cell.

SAM4: Art is great because you get to express yourself, especially in a prison where you’re so confined.

AZ: Sam was at the exhibition’s opening. He didn’t want to give his last name because the people he works with don’t know he’s an ex-prisoner. He started doing time when he was 15, after being convicted of killing the man who molested him as a child. He served 13 years—the last five on work release. And he graduated from the law School before his sentence was up.

SAM: The smart survivors in prison keep to themselves and when you keep to yourself what do you have? Hopefully you have an art brush, hopefully you have something to express yourself because you cannot express yourself to others, that can be dangerous.

While Sam was in jail he worked as an assistant to the prison art instructor. The program has since been cut.

When Shirley Shuman happened upon the Lab Gallery earlier this week, she was amazed by what she saw.

SHUMAN: I’m just astounded look at it! I mean, there’s so much talent here. Why would these people waste it on criminal things rather than doing what they were born to do? I mean this is just marvelous. The technique—how advanced they are—it's not amateur stuff!

AZ: Technically, much of it is amateur stuff. But Matt Semler who runs the Lab Gallery says he was attracted to this show because it puts a human face on a "de-humanized" segment of society.

SEMLER: A lot of these are kind of bizarre (horn), they have kind of an odd feeling to them. This portrait here of a young girl is one of the nicest pieces in the show a 3, 4-year-old girl in traditional native American dress, sitting very calmly, her hands are very relaxed. But once you start moving up from the right hand, there’s a tension in there, and you get up to her face, which seems perfectly serene, but she is shooting daggers with her eyes. There’s a tension there in the look she’s giving you. It’s just a very complicated piece, I think. They’re not just doodling, these people are really expressing themselves.

AZ: The show was curated by Graham Nash. While he’s best known as an iconic folk rock musician he’s been a photographer since he was ten years old. He says one of the most remarkable things about this artwork is the artists’ inventiveness.

NASH: Of course they can’t have chisels, of course they can’t have hammers, they can’t do with the normal tools that an artist would want to work with. And that makes the pieces all the more wonderful for me. One man was saying that he had to soak red M & Ms in water to get some paint that looked red … one man grew his hair for four months, so he could cut it and make brushes …one man could only chisel this wonderful cowboy figure in soap.

AZ: The man who made paintbrushes from his own hair, also used Kool Aid and diluted coffee grinds to paint a shadowy image of a man in shorts and flip flops, sitting on the bottom bunk of a prison cell, hunched over a book and smoking a cigarette, with a full moon shining through an open space in the cell wall. If you get close enough, you can smell the coffee.

Nash didn’t communicate directly with any of the prisoners. He read about their techniques in explanations that came with their submissions. After a while though, he says it became too "heartbreaking" and he had to stop reading them and judge the art alone—otherwise, he couldn’t be objective.

NASH: I’m only seeing this man or woman through their art. And in a way it’s wonderful because I’m not particularly interested as to why they ended up in prison for life or why they ended up in solitary confinement. What was important was to get their art out of there.

AZ: The Lab Gallery’s Matt Semler took sentences from the inmates’ descriptions and had them printed on the walls amid the artwork.

SEMLER: "My art is the lynch pin of my mental survival," I mean I think most artists probably feel that way, and then you put it into the context of a guy who’s sitting in a 10 x 4 cell.

SEMLER: … What really gets me in the gut is how human and sensitive these people inevitably have to be in order to be able to be creating this work. And yet, paradoxically how inhuman and how insensitive they must have been when they created the crimes that got them in jail to begin with.

AZ: And because of that, the people running this exhibition know that there are people who will see it as glorifying criminals. Graham Nash disagrees.

NASH: I don’t see it as glorifying anything except the expression of the human soul, and that’s surely worth glorifying, no matter where it resides.

AZ: The Fortune Society awards first, second and third place winners a small amount of money to buy art supplies—if their prisons allow it. The "Insider Art" show is up at the Lab Gallery at the Roger Smith Hotel in midtown through this Saturday.

For WNYC, I'm Alicia Zuckerman.

You can see the artwork at The Fortune Society