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By Don Smith

Bella Rosa, Colored Pencil, Colorado State Penitentiary

A man sits in a prison cell. To his right are white sneakers, propped up against the wall. On the shelf above him sit protein powder, books, a meticulous arrangement of energy drinks, and in the upper left corner, an unmistakable bright green bag — Flamin’ Hot Limón Doritos. This painting is one of hundreds of works created by incarcerated people across the state of Colorado.

Public art shows are a way for incarcerated people to connect with a world they, in most ways, no longer really have access to — one beyond prison walls. People may be imprisoned, but perspectives should not be; and art, many argue, is a form of essential discourse.

Chained Voices was a prison arts project already in existence, led by a group of social workers and lawyers, when the University of Denver’s Prison Arts Initiative (DU PAI) got involved.

DU PAI, a program that works to bring therapeutic arts programming into Colorado prisons, collaborates with every prison but is robustly up and running in a dozen correctional facilities. In addition to visual art shows, they manage theater productions, a podcast, a statewide newspaper and a literary arts magazine for the incarcerated. Soon, they will launch the country’s first statewide prison radio station. “We think of art in a really broad way,” says executive director Ashley Hamilton.

The two entities, Chained Voices and DU PAI, are now official partners, working together to produce the show — and because DU PAI works so closely with the Colorado Department of Corrections, the project has been able to expand its reach significantly.

Last year, Colorado Springs entered the mix. Cottonwood Center for the Arts had its first prison art show, Inside Voices, in March of 2020. This September, they are returning for their second — this time, as official collaborators with Chained Voices. The show is a collective effort with multiple parties involved: Cottonwood, DU PAI, the Colorado Department of Corrections and the Correcting Corrections initiative.

“Epic” is how Hamilton described the curation process. First, they created a call for art, which was put up in every unit in the state. After the incarcerated created and submitted their works, the PAI team drove to each prison, collecting nearly 400 pieces of art.

Every piece (except those that present security concerns) is included in an online gallery, where people can purchase the artworks. In addition to the online gallery, the art will be shown at five physical locations. Some, at the University of Denver for the Aug. 20 show. Others are at Colorado Springs venues: the Cottonwood Center for the Arts, and new to the project, the Colorado Springs Indy, the Relevant Word Christian Cultural Center and the Pikes Peak Library District (PPLD, Library 21c).

Incarcerated artists are usually forced to be creative, says Jon Khoury, executive director of Cottonwood. While they are able to obtain art materials from the commissary, a lot of pieces are made from found materials. “As far as the mediums go, they were more about what was available than what the intent of the artist might have been given all of the tools to work with,” says Khoury. “Which made it even more fascinating. Because now, it’s about: I have to find a way to tell my story … So as far as mediums go, the most important medium was perseverance. To get it done, rather than I need these tools to get it done.

“And that’s an important lesson for any artist. If you’re a cook, and you’re making something at home and you’re missing onions, you still have to produce a nice meal if the stores are closed. So it’s not always, ‘These are the ingredients I need.’ It’s, ‘These are the ingredients I have, and I’m going to make something amazing.’”

There are various motivations for creative expression: for catharsis, to challenge the system, to share a specific moment, or simply for connection. 

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Essence By Shanella

Colored Pencil, Women’s Facility

Khoury notes that art can also be a healing form of expression. Some of the people who came to see the show last year were actually victims of crimes committed by the artists. The positive impact of art on our correctional system is well-documented. Studies show that arts education helps improve inmates’ self-worth and confidence; contributes to self-development; encourages communication and reflection; and provides opportunities for them to connect with society (in a positive and productive way) through art.

“I deeply, deeply believe that art is a really incredible vehicle for us to shift the conversation about prison, and also to humanize folks inside,” says Hamilton. “And so, it acts as this really amazing tool for us to have more nuanced conversations about the system and about who is in the system. And I think that whether it’s visual art, theater, dance or movement, a podcast, whatever it is, the incredible thing about the arts is it allows us to make sense of the human experience and allows us to sort through the complexity of the human experience.”

Hamilton adds, “I think it also can allow us to further our relationships with accountability and responsibility and redemption and forgiveness. … And I also think it just brings the complexity of what’s happening inside ... to the public in a way that is a little bit more palatable.”

Hamilton says there’s added value in the opportunity for inmates to share their art: “I think that sharing art really allows for this relationship between creator and audience. There’s reciprocity in that, there’s a back and forth, even if it’s someone staring at a painting, and the painter doesn’t ever even necessarily know what happened to the audience member or the viewer in staring at it or in taking it in. But there’s power in that relationship, of having your art viewed by another. It says, ‘I see you, and I see your journey.’ And I think it also allows for transformation to happen … a little perspective … or even, in our dream world, maybe even some healing.”

Khoury says, “[I]t’s critically important to know that people behind bars sometimes paint pictures of rural flowers and fields, and dream about being outside of their confinement. One of the paintings, as I recall last year, was prison bars looking outside and Santa’s sled going by in the background. And it just shows you that we all kind of do have the same dreams and visions. Our perspectives are all a little bit different. And that person’s perspective was, I see the world from behind these bars.”

One artist in this year’s show — The Exile, whose real name is protected for privacy/security concerns — talked about their introduction to art in a statement provided by DU PAI: “I’ve lived in many places, but call Alabama home. It’s the place I go to in my dreams. At 11 years old I was homeless and escaping the cold at Downtown Denver 16th St. Mall Barnes and Noble bookstore. I sat cross legged on the floor in the art book section and flipped through books I couldn’t afford to buy that had fantasy art from Boris [Vallejo], Todd Lockwood, [Frazetta] and my mind was blown. That’s the moment I decided to never stop drawing.” 

Hamilton says that while we can’t excuse harm, we can recognize our tendency to reduce people. Defining an incarcerated person by the worst thing that they’ve done is a reduction that fails to account for the nuances and complexities of personhood — and tends to reject a person’s capacity for rehabilitation and change.

“[An assumption is] that folks inside aren’t necessarily willing or able to take accountability and responsibility for their harm,” says Hamilton. “There are a lot of people inside who are yearning to be accountable.”

Sen. Pete Lee, who practiced law in the criminal justice system, has built his political platform on prison reform and restorative justice. Lee says art is just as important behind prison walls as it is on the outside. “I’m impressed with the quality of work that is done by people in the institutions, but I’m never surprised [by] it,” he says. “Because, you know, they’re you and me who ended up there.”

Subscribing to a guilty-innocent binary can make empathy challenging. Via art, an audience may be more receptive to diverse perspectives on shared human experiences.

“In restorative justice, we are bringing people in community together with people who have breached the rules in order to help them move forward and reintegrate,” says Lee. “And art is part of that. … art is a manifestation of the heart of people in the community.”

According to Lee, a lack of exposure to the justice system — in particular, its absence in our own personal lives — can affect our perception of it. “I think the reason why most people are not interested in the inhumanity of the criminal justice system and the dysfunctionality of the criminal justice system, is because they don’t know anyone who’s gotten immersed in the criminal justice system,” says Lee. “If your brother, cousin, aunt or nephew had run afoul of the laws and had been put in jail or prison, and you saw how dysfunctional and harmful it is, you would be doing what I’m doing — trying to advocate for change.”

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Downtown Denver By Joaquin Mares

Acrylic, Limon Correctional Facility

Inside Voices is more than an avenue for connection; it’s an economic opportunity as well. All proceeds are given back to the artists. 

“This was really for love and not for money,” says Khoury. This month is a financial sacrifice for Cottonwood, but not a loss. The money will be deposited into accounts inmates can use at the commissary: for food, phone calls to family and friends, and even art supplies.

Prison art shows beget the same kind of scrutiny any other initiative does: How can it work to dismantle generalizations/stereotypes when the show itself is defined by this collective identity of “inmates”? Would their art have been accepted under normal circumstances, if there wasn’t a “currently incarcerated” label attached to them? How do we recognize perspectives without commodifying them?

The role of galleries like Cottonwood, says Khoury, is not to relay a specific message but simply to provide a space where all perspectives are welcome. He is more concerned about voices being heard than how those voices are resonating with people.

“I’m more interested in the process of giving artists an opportunity to produce, and people an opportunity to see, view, assess,” he says. “I never worry about who misses the point or doesn’t see it. I love that we give people literally a blank canvas of rooms to hang their work. What happens after that is not in my thoughts at all. What’s in my thoughts is the opportunity. The process and how people take it ... is entirely up to them. So I hope to achieve nothing but to provide everything.”

Art is, first and foremost, an apparatus for expression. But it is also one with the potential to incite conversation and change — whether that materializes as legal reforms, healing, the introduction of a new idea or the challenging of preexisting one. Springs venues like Cottonwood, the Indy, Relevant Word and Library 21c hope to facilitate these experiences for the artists and audience.

“Folks inside are still a part of our community,” says Hamilton. “And this art show is a way of representing that. ”

Disclosure: Inside Voices receives assistance from Correcting Corrections, a grassroots, criminal justice reform project created by Southeast Express founder John Weiss.