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At the CultureHouse in Cambridge, a pop-up community space and café, an art collection that explores the many facets of humanity — life-like sketches, abstract art erupting with color and intricate sculptures — adorn the walls and rest atop the counters of the brightly lit space.
The art comes from members of the Freedom Through Art Collective (FTA), a group of 26 creatives who are or were recently incarcerated. Founded by friends and prison abolitionists Megan Smith and Rachel Corey, the collective aims to provide incarcerated artists a way to share their work, spark dialogue and collaborate with one another.
But ultimately, it offers a chance for the artists to be seen without the weight of their convictions hovering over them.
FTA member Wayland “X” Coleman says the collective also “benefits the free society.” It helps folks “see that there are people who are incarcerated that are knowledgeable, talented and creative and have the potential to build and contribute to society.”
The idea for FTA came about after Smith and Corey who attended college together, but didn’t become friends until bumping into each other at an ICA event in the summer of 2011, discovered they had similar interests.
“We had both just been working around prison abolition with different groups, and through that [we] realized we knew a lot of currently incarcerated artists,” Smith says. The idea for FTA was Smith’s, Corey says. Smith, also an artist, had a synergistic working relationship with an incarcerated maker that foreshadowed the birth of the collective. Since the group’s launch in 2018, the work has been shown at Sanctuary United Church of Christ, Gragger’s 12th Annual Raucous & Radical Purim Party and UMass Boston.
The program thrives through partnerships between those on the outside and artists inside prison. Smith and Corey look for people who are interested in sharing opportunities, cataloging the work, checking in on the artists and mailing a newsletter. Ideally, Corey explains, relationships will continue to grow. “We're hoping more folks go and visit people in person and speak over the phone and that sort of thing,” she says.
To stay in touch and foster collaboration, Smith and Corey use snail mail to send newsletters to the prisons, which later get posted on the organization’s website. The newsletters contain updates, calls for art by theme and space for feedback.
Even with the collective’s support, incarcerated artists face many challenges. The amount of free time to draw or sculpt outside of work and school varies by institution and art supplies can be extremely limited. If creatives employ other materials, it’s considered contraband. The obstacles, however, don’t seem to affect the quality of art on display.
Throughout the exhibition, freedom and optimism push against anguish and melancholy. Mark Thomas’ “The Embrace” finds two lovers buried in an abstract design, while Tony Ross Black’s art searches for alternate perceptions of reality. Black’s “Systematic Psychological Dismemberment,” shows a man’s head partially deconstructed in muted colors and the letters LWOP (life without the possibility of parole) tattooed on the man’s arm.
Having an outlet like this is critical, “especially in a punitive system where self-expression is punished in a lot of ways,” Smith offers. “We learned that a lot of our artists were using it [art] for financial benefit and also for a therapeutic benefit,” she explains.
FTA isn’t an officially sanctioned prison program, but it’s still a valuable tool to help build community. Access to the arts allows inmates to express themselves, relieve stress and make better choices, research suggests.
For Coleman, who graduated last June with a bachelor’s degree from Boston University’s Prison Education Program, his “art is a photograph of a particular emotion at a particular point in time,” he says. His thought provoking “The Policeman’s Scope” — which depicts a kneeling black man at the mercy of a policeman whose target lies squarely on the man’s chest — seeks to show the objectification of black and brown bodies by police. He hopes his drawings “will inspire activism,” and wants viewers to feel what he feels “when it comes to oppression and inhumane isolation from society.”
In David Chavez’ skillful drawings, eyes are often a focal point. In what Corey says is a self-portrait, Chavez, who was released from prison in April, draws himself with partially formed horns and a missing eye. Other drawings of his feature weeping, missing or otherwise affected eyes. Chavez explains that “it signifies what I see.”
FTA is part of a growing network of organizations such as Mural Arts Philadelphia’s restorative justice program that aspires to use art to build bonds between local incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals and their communities and Escaping Time in New York which showcases art from U.S. prisons, each with the overall goal of promoting visibility of incarcerated people.
But more than that, Corey wants those who don’t typically engage in the criminal punishment system to think more about it and engage in it because something they saw moved them, she says. “These people are making this beautiful work in cages and that's not right.”
Smith hopes that when somebody “who hasn’t thought about that before sees a piece of artwork, that they see the person behind it.”
Freedom Through Art Collective’s exhibition is at CultureHouse, 500 Kendall St., in Cambridge through August. On Aug. 7, Smith and Corey will share more about their work at the CultureHouse’s pop up dinner event.
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