Between the bars
Art from the Inside
For prisoners, life behind bars can often be isolating. Cut off from the rest of the world, their lives are defined—from the outside—by the acts that led to their incarceration. Inside prisons, with few resources other than time, many inmates have found ways to cope, be creative and express themselves through art. There’s a long history of prison art in this country, and more and more groups that promote awareness and provide outlets for prisoner artists are coming into existence.
Lawyer and artist Glynn B. Cartledge has worked with many inmates through her own practice and decided that it was time to highlight some of Nevada’s artists who do their work from prisons around the state. For more than a year, Cartledge has been in contact with various penitentiaries and individuals who have spread the word about an art show she wanted to put together to exhibit the art of prisoners.
The exhibition, Art from the Inside, consists of over 50 pieces done by adult men incarcerated in Nevada prisons on display at VSA Nevada. The premise of the event is to show that these people are not defined just by this one act that landed them in prison but that they are human beings just like the rest of us.
“I’d like to showcase their art and give them a little dignity,” says Cartledge.
Cartledge is a painter herself and will also be displaying her portraits of former inmates alongside the other work. She started this particular series of paintings in conjunction with her efforts to showcase art from prisoners and plans to continue working on it after the exhibition. Some of her subjects are former clients and even people she has met through her church. Painting them allows Cartledge to interact with them and get to know them. Often, it leads to an ongoing relationship where they continue to correspond via letters and telephone.
The majority of the work she received for this show is drawing, done with graphite or pen and ink on paper. Most of the prisoners have few supplies to work with, so they work with what they have. One example from the show is an incredibly detailed model ship done by a death row inmate. The ship is made from found objects such as pieces of ballpoint pens, cardboard and thread. The cardboard has been cut into small planks and assembled and painted to form the hull, and the rigging, made out of black thread and hand-pressed paper, is modeled after a working ship.
As part of the process, the inmates send their work in with a letter about their art. With help from volunteers Merilee Engelmann, Genevieve Krause and Michael Martin, Cartledge has been cataloguing the work and responding to all of the letters.
One prisoner writes, “My name is Matthew Romero and over the years, I’ve learned how to draw, and with that talent I’ve been able to live in here a little better.”
Another inmate, Francisco Rivas-Bonilla writes, “I have been drawing for four years. Sometimes I wish I had started sooner. I would be a lot better. Besides, art is a way of freedom. When I’m drawing I forget about things, and [it] makes my time easier and, at the same time, I’m doing something positive.”
“I just want to give them some dignity that they don’t get otherwise,” Cartledge says. “They are just told how bad they are and that they have done the wrong things and I want to give them a little hope. I understand that I do have guilty clients, that they have done something bad, but this is not the complete picture of who they are.”