This past week, an exhibit “Faces of Incarceration” was taken down from the walls of the Playhouse Gallery of the Overture Center of the Arts in Madison, Wisconsin. The creators of this moving exhibit are Pat Dillon, a writer, and Phillip Salamone, studio owner of Atwood Atelier at Winnebago studios, also of Madison. When Pat Dillon discovered a “loved one” who was father to her grandson and incarcerated, she felt moved to raise awareness about several issues of incarceration in Madison and the state of Wisconsin. One issue is the rising number of African American boys and men becoming incarcerated and the other is about the difficulties reintegration after release involves.
Phillip Salamone, an oil painter in the classical tradition, put up several of his portraits of incarcerated men along with those of participating artists in a Winnebago Studio show several years ago. The response was overwhelming and very encouraging. So for the past year, Phillip has invited former inmates to his studio to model sitting for three to four hours per session while artists applied themselves to the artistry and craft of painting a realistic portrait. Working in oil, drawing media,and watercolor, we artists learned the stories, listened to poems and became acquainted with these models who previously were only known as a statistic.
Concurrent with the Faces show at the Overture Center during July and August, two movies were shown about Incarceration. “13th”, an oscar-nominated movie, is about how oppressors get around the 13th Amendment which outlaws slavery in the U.S. By putting more people and especially Blacks in jail and labeling them criminals, there becomes a loop-hole of using “criminality” as way to perpetuate slavery. The second movie shown in August was “Milwaukee 53206”, a documentary about America’s most incarcerated zip code: 53206, which is in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. A sell out crowd then stayed for a following discussion of the movie. Also, after the opening of the Faces of Incarceration show, a panel of the models stayed and discussed issues around the topic. As each model spoke, it was emphasized that the passion for reform should come from themselves, the men and women who have been sentenced to
Prisons are systems that are run by men and male dominated . Sensitive issues for women like a woman’s menstruation are ignored and the health needs of women are not met adequately. A third issue concerns awareness of how there is a growing pipeline of African American boys going directly from high school to prison. Providing safe homes for children, especially boys, is part of the answer as mentioned in this panel discussion.
Not to exclude in anyway, another exhibit “Captured” was shown in Gallery ll of the Overture also in 2017. “Captured” is a photo essay focusing on the incarcerated youth of the Dane County Juvenile Center, which is nearby the Overture Center in Madison. Amber Sowards, photographer, is a member of GSAFE team, a Wisconsin nonprofit working with LGBTQ and youth. Her photos may be seen on the website: www.ambersowards.com.
Statistics are only numbers until the public can hear the narratives and see the faces of the men, women, and children who are incarcerated. For example, Rudy was imprisoned for 20 years before being proven innocent of the crime he allegedly committed. He is one of many who leave the prison system and struggle to reintegrate themselves into their communities and neighborhoods. Rudy had several portraits painted of him. A document written by Pat Dillon next to one of these portraits featured Rudy Bankston’s book of poetry Snippets of Soul in 17 Syllables. In these poems, he expresses “the brokenness” of the self he experienced in prison. Writing became a means of expression while living in the very rigid system of the prison. Rudy explains that the 17 syllables refer to haiku which is composed of 17 syllables. His poetry reaches that kind of brevity. “Strapped for Life”, a pen and ink with watercolor wash by Louise L. Uttech, shows an ankle strap which had to be worn after the inmate was released from prison. The ankle strap was not part of a jury or judge’s conviction but a disciplinary measure inflicted by prison officials. Yet the strap is to be worn after his release without any judge or jury making that decision. Lastly, to meet someone like Jerome, who has worked to become the statewide leader of EXPO, the Ex Prisoners Organizing, is amazing. Jerome is involved with a grassroots network of leaders and faithful people in the task of reforming the system of Incarceration in Wisconsin. The paint brushes, canvases, and paint tubes were certainly worth it to be honored to paint these amazing portraits!