Art unlocked

VSA arts of Nevada showcases the art of the incarcerated

I watch you vaporize
As mass meets mass;
This side your last breath
The other side your first breath.
You watch me parole-less
As time meets time;
This side my last breath
The other side my first breath.
—Robert Gonzales

The prison system erects a barrier between the lawbreaker and the average citizen; it shields the “good guy” from the “bad guy” or creates a space for those who may need to be shielded from the darker side of themselves.

The prison environment is thus pretty incomprehensible to most of the population, and the outside world can become a foreign place to the incarcerated man or woman. The dialogue between the two worlds is usually one of letters and timed visits.

That dialogue has become more varied and more public this month at VSA arts of Nevada. An exhibit titled Unlocked Treasures provides a glimpse into the inner life of the prisoner through art, craft and poetry.

“There are flowers and animals and baby clothes and leather work [on display], which show the different personalities of the prisoners, just like the diversity of the general population,” says Mary Ellen Horan, executive director at VSA. “There are a lot of talented people in the prison. Hopefully, this is rehabilitating for them, and an outlet. This is a population that’s underserved by the arts.”

All of the works on display are for sale, with 50 percent of the funds going to the prisoners and the remaining funds benefiting VSA arts and other charitable organizations.

Make no mistake: The point here is not to dump charity on those in prisons. Unlocked Treasures features some fascinating art that makes simply stopping by and looking around worthwhile. One example is Ismael Garcia Santillanes’ exotic paintings of tribal men, “camel boys” and decaying cities.

His “Afghanistan Woman,” which seems especially popular among VSA staff and patrons, shows a woman in a beautiful powder blue burka. A net cloth shields most of the woman’s face, but her piercing green eyes—looking questioning and fearful, but at the same time, strangely wise—are still visible through the slats.

Horan says that she likes the piece because of its imprisonment imagery, noting that the “behind bars” metaphor might be used to describe a woman’s position in Afghanistan under Taliban rule.

As Horan suggests, perhaps "Afghanistan Woman" is Santillanes’ statement on what it’s like to see the world from behind a screen. It’s the kind of work that could help those on the outside grasp what it may be like to live within a highly regulated system.