For more than a year, I have worked side-by-side with a dynamic group of individuals who have had serious trouble with the law; they have survived jail and prison, and now – with the help of support networks, political advocacy, and art – they are building new lives.
I am an embedded artist and ally of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition (ARC), a Los Angeles-based support network for men and women with conviction histories. Many of ARC’s 250 members were caught up in the system as juveniles and served adult mandatory sentences. Now free, they are all committed to positive change, not only for themselves, but for others who share their history and struggles.
Polling data tells us that the place where liberals and conservatives come the closest together is around juvenile justice reform. Equipped with this knowledge and with the guidance of ARC founder and Hollywood producer Scott Budnick and Human Rights Watch advocate Elizabeth Calvin, ARC members actively engage in justice reform. They have become leaders in policy advocacy in California and nationwide. They are currently campaigning for the California Public Safety and Rehabilitation Act of 2016, and on several occasions, they have been welcomed at the White House.
ARC does more than advocacy; it is its own community, and I’m thrilled to be part of it. Having invested my energies in establishing trust and mutual understanding with the ARC and its members, I engage in a variety of activities and lead members in artistic exercises and workshops; I often travel to Los Angeles for monthly members’ meetings, or I might help in an event, such as co-facilitating a workshop–Using Art to Transform Lives–with Actors Gang’s Prisons Project for an ARC retreat at Ironwood State Prison in Blythe, CA. When asked, I also bring forth my experience as a university professor to advise members on their educational goals.
My aim is to introduce ARC members to how social art practice can be relevant to their life experiences and goals. Through inviting members to participate in various artistic projects, I hope to give them a stronger sense of the potential of socially grounded creative endeavors to affect change. Although most ARC members will not become professional artists, our partnership has a more fundamental impact: participants nurture their imaginations and creativity, helping re-imagine themselves, their positions in society, and society’s response to them.
In what follows, a variety of strategies and practices are incorporated into this ongoing work for the purpose of creating narratives, images and representations of lived experience, both for the participants and the public. My goal is to help bring the active voice of returning citizens into the national groundswell of public dialogue and media coverage on criminal justice reform.
A Wednesday, late morning, April
(photo Amy Masters) (photo Catherine Akins)
I sit with a large group of people in a conference room at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, watching ARC member Dominque Bell projected larger than life on a big screen, sharing his life story. We are at the Open Engagement artists’ conference, and I have collaborated with artists Mark Strandquist and Courtney Bowles to develop a live program called Touching Revolution: Radical Vision and Creative Responses to Mass Incarceration. Using Skype, we brought together activists, artists, and communities from around the country who are using artistic strategies to radically re-imagine criminal justice issues.
Dominique’s face fills the screen as he leans in to share his story. Arrested at 15, he was charged as an adult and received a 35-year sentence. Although he wasn’t sure he would ever get out, he decided to make the most of the life he was living. When he had an opportunity to move into a college dorm inside the corrections system, Dom found that it helped him separate himself from prison and gang culture.
Dom explained that this environment changed his perception: Maybe he could leave prison and return home. Doubting this possibility had demoralized him, and he asserted that many young people who are imprisoned with no chance of parole live like he had—without hope. The elimination of California’s mandatory sentencing laws and a whole range of more humane sentencing regulations have positively affected the way incarcerated people live and how they pursue opportunities for release.
Californians who had always believed they would die in prison are now coming home, working hard to succeed, and becoming champions of this reform.
In a final story, Dom talked about meeting a busy Senator during the legislative session. Dom said, “’Listen, you don’t have a lot of time. I just want to show you something.’ And I reached into my pocket and pulled out my old prison ID. He looked at it, and then I went in my other pocket and showed him this college ID. And I said, ‘This is the different side. That is the difference.’ And [the Senator] responded, ‘Enough said.’”
A Saturday afternoon in June
A group of ARC members and I met in front of the Geffen Contemporary in downtown Los Angeles to see the William Pope.L exhibit Trinket. There were thirteen or fourteen of us. Julio Acosta, Yahniie Bridges, Ryan Lo, and Aaron Wilson encouraged the others to join in. We waited a bit for Candice Price and a friend but their bus was delayed.
We stood next to Pope.L’s monumental American flag, which blows continuously and whips in the wind. Large-scale industrial fans and theatrical lights transformed the gallery into an air tunnel, reminiscent of a Hollywood movie set. We raise our voices to be heard. We talk about how the wind has frayed the edges and ripped the flag, and about how that reflects the breaking down of American democracy and public participation.
Pope.L’s large-scale projects opened a space for us to consider the power and poetics of artwork. Characters in his videos sparked a discussion on racial profiling, police brutality, and racial disparity in the criminal justice system. I didn’t anticipate that our conversation would also span a discussion about artistic strategies. We ended up talking about how art served several purposes, including spectacle and political activism, and how a conceptual framework in social practice made that possible.
Friday, all day, July
(photo Catherine Akins)
On a summer day during a colloquium with Bay-area ARC members at the Headlands Art Center, our group shared a lunch, spoke candidly about our experiences, and took a walk on the beach. I was an artist-in-residence for the month at Headlands, and had planned to organize this event before I came. Michael Mendoza told us about being arrested as a teenage gang member involved in a situation in which someone lost his life, and serving 17 years in prison before earning parole. He said that when he took his first breath of fresh air on the outside; he had no idea how to start rebuilding.
I had also recently been with Michael Mendoza, Nate Williams, Mylrell Miner, and other ARC members in Sacramento, when Michael testified on SB 261 for a House hearing committee. The bill would offer a parole hearing to adults up to 23 years of age, consider their age at the time of their crime, and acknowledge their unique capacity to mature and change. (The bill, SB 261, became law last November and has the potential to impact the lives of upwards of 14,000 people currently incarcerated.)
During our meeting in the Headlands’ library, we made a provocative observation: most people can conjure iconic images of prisoners – someone in shackles, a jumpsuit, or with tattoos around their face – but we have difficulty imagining people as released and successfully returning citizens.
Since that meeting, we have been conceptualizing a long-term project that addresses this perceptual rift. Together, we are developing a plan for an ongoing series that utilizes the material of their experiences to shift the narrative of re-entry and public perception. The plan is to undertake a creative process and collect content to produce posters, performance events, and media clips that question and challenge assumptions about incarcerated persons. This material will be available to individuals on the “inside” who need positive role models. We will also use exhibitions, public programs, and media displayed on public transportation to create context for people on the “outside” to reconsider their own understandings of re-entry and their relationship to returning individuals. Our goal is to shift both personal and public perceptions and to instigate a catalytic response.
A Sunday morning in January
“The movement is contagious and its spirit lives within its people.”
– Ise Lyfe, recording artist, advocate, actor
Since the first day of the ARC Annual Retreat, choreographer Elizabeth Johnson and I have paid close attention to the ways people express themselves with their hands, heads, and bodies. Drawing from Ise Lyfe, we took a moment at the closing ceremony to ask ARC members: “When were you moved this weekend? Moved to tears, moved to action, moved to think in a different way?”
Based on their responses, we developed a sequence of movements and ideas that everyone performed during the closing ceremony that morning. Elizabeth and I led the community through this series of physical gestures and movement phrases. The result was a kind of dance that represented key moments from the previous two days. More than 100 people moved in unison, highlighting the retreat’s most important messages.
We verbalized these various messages as a chorus:
“Lead with love, lead with service.”
“I’m tired of holding tight; I have to let go and let you go.”
“Grab the fucking wheel and drive.”
One emphatic hand gesture looked like a punch in the air; another gesture was the dropping of the head, as if in reverence. Participants noticed and repeated these gestures and often accompanied them with words. At certain points, the entire group pointed in unison, like first down to the left (“That’s my grocery store!”), and then up to the right (“And that’s my church!”).
Thursday, late afternoon, March
(photos Emily Thomas)
ARC member Steve Duby sat down with a group of Arizona State University students, artists and activists. They set a circle of mattresses on the campus lawn. In the wake of Emma Sulkowicz’s performance piece at Columbia University, mattresses have become a charged symbol on university campuses. My students interpret the metaphor of mattresses as representing a place of comfort and rest, emergent sexual exploration, and sometimes violence.
My art students have taken their mattresses out of their bedrooms and onto campus for an Open Air Mattress Talk, part of a series of dialogues my students and I are organizing about consent, rape, and creating a healthy sexual culture on campus.
At my invitation, Steve traveled from Los Angeles to Phoenix to participate in this forum. In prison he learned to live alongside people caught in the cycle of sexual violence, and he performs counseling to perpetrators and victims and some who are both. Although he tackles difficult subjects, Steve offers depth and humanity, and his audience listened, learned, and laughed during this respectful exchange.
A Monday evening in April
I co-moderated a panel discussion on solitary confinement for Rap Sheet to Resume, a social-aesthetic investigation and professional training workshop I co-led for the Urban Justice Center in New York City.
The room was silent as everyone listened to a subtitled audio recording. The conversation was recorded at a barbecue, where I chatted with ARC member Stanley Bailey about art and life during his 17 years in the Special Housing Unit (SHU) at Pelican Bay.
Stanley: I was saying solitary confinement… Art plays a part in that. Something normal in such an abstract fucking place that’s so shut down and confined. You don’t see a lot of beauty, and normal is not something that comes to mind. When you see a picture, whether it’s a photograph or a painting, or whether poetry or song, it brings a sense of normal, of peace. It allows you to take a deep breath.
Gregory: So if you were to have an artistic experience inside or somebody was, would it only be self-generated or could you hear somebody next to you sing?
Stanley: Oh, definitely, yeah. There’s, oh, usually eight of you in a pod, and usually somebody will share a photograph, a drawing, or their artwork, you know what I mean? You can get them passed back and forth; you can fish for them with string from one cell to another. “Hey, look at this picture my daughter sent me. She drew it in the third grade.” “Oh, here’s a photograph of my mom in 1951 when she was 19. Look at this.”
For me, it was powerful to hear Stanley tell his own story. The discussion included journalist Maurice Chammah from the Marshall Project, investigative journalist Jennifer Gonnerman from the New Yorker, safe-entry advocate Johnny Perez from the Urban Justice Center, and scholar Patricia Williams from The Nation and Columbia University.
A Tuesday morning in February
I’m on a conference call with ARC Founder Scott Budnick. A board member, an ally, and two ARC members are also on the call. We are brainstorming about an idea for an exhibition of art made by those inside.
ARC board member Brent Bolthouse had reached out to me a couple weeks before, asking me to start thinking about this project. It could blend nicely with the work I’ve been building towards with ARC members, especially our proposed public service campaign social art piece.
Scott says that he was talking with folks inside the system, extraordinarily talented artists, men and women, who are underrepresented in so many ways.
Aaron, who has been out for less than a year, is a self-taught artist who believes in the power of art to speak to our deeper selves. He cautions against artwork that’s too predictable.
I propose inviting the currently incarcerated participants into an open creative process with ARC members and other affiliates, who can help them imagine the ideal circumstances of who they will be and what they will do when they get out.
As point of departure for the exhibition, I suggest inviting participants to make new artwork with an invitation to… “look into your soul and see yourself fly. Show us where you’re going. Tell us who you’ll be.” Though I recognize potential problems with the word “soul,” I cannot think of a more apt term at that moment for supporting these human beings in envisioning themselves as fully accomplished and integrative selves when they are released.
We decide to pull together a working group to brainstorm a “Call to Artists.” We will ask that the artwork be two-dimensional and predominantly image-based. Participants would also submit one word that helps them visualize their life on the “outside” – “teacher,” “lawyer,” “student,” “husband,” “father,” “neighbor,” “Compton,” “San Diego,” etc.
The exhibition will also double as an auction. When a piece is sold, it will be removed from the wall and given to the new owner. Beneath that artwork, the word provided by the artist will remain. By the end of the exhibition, those words will dominate the gallery’s landscape. This exchange of art will build a de facto support network. Meanwhile, funds from the sales will be split 50/50 between ARC and the artists.
As the conversation wraps up, I think about how after the exhibition, each art piece will be in the hands of someone who believes in and supports justice reform and those people inside, who are working so hard to be successful when they finally get out. I want to ask the ARC members what they think it might mean for the artists themselves.