When Carmita Kelley first came into contact with Bridget Killian, there was no way that she could have known that a year later, the work of the inmates involved in her program would be exhibited on the walls of Recitation Hall.
Although the exhibition “Parallel Lives, Parallel Visions” is on display from Feb. 6 to March 2, work for the showcase began during January of last year. Killian, a graduate student of art history, felt that she was not active within the Newark community. Seeking to increase her local engagement and combine her interests in prison reform and art, Killian reached out to Kelley, director of the Prison Arts Program, with the intention of volunteering with the the program. At the time, correction officer Lt. Steven Floyd was killed while on duty, resulting in a shutdown of the art program as a safety measure. Still determined to collaborate with the program, Killian kept in touch with Kelley.
Fortunately, a chance for Killian to be involved with the Prison Arts Program presented itself.
Although the Prison Arts Program has recently sparked public interest with the exhibition, the program has been holding classes at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center since 1979. According to Kelley, programs run in eight-week sessions and the program sponsors four different classes: Intro to Adult Coloring, Basic Drawing, Basic Painting and Advanced Painting. Inmates are held responsible for cleaning up and getting ready for the next section, and each art program is supervised by an inmate art instructor and an assistant. In the facility, the program is regarded as a privilege: if an inmate has not had a write up in the last six months, then they are eligible to apply for the class.
“The opportunity to curate a show at the university was offered by some professors in my department,” Killian says. “I asked Carmita if she would be interested in doing it with me, and that’s how we started the process of submitting a proposal.”
Once their proposal was accepted, the two set out to form a team of panelists and community organizers to assist in the process of assembling the exhibit. These team members included Roy Hickman, a formerly incarcerated art instructor who delivered the keynote speech at the gallery’s opening, and Michael Kalmbach, the director of the Creative Vision Factory, an art based program for those who have “made contact with the criminal justice system.”
Kalmbach was enthusiastic to step on board with the process, and knew of the positive benefits that the program and the exhibition could have on the inmates.
“You see art making, you see creativity taking place regardless of the amount of institutional support it has because it works and it’s a source of resiliency,” Kalmbach says. “I think for people who are incarcerated or institutionalized, [we] offer a space to create, to have a level of autonomy that the systems they’re in do not offer. So it’s only natural to seek out that mental state.”
While offenders get the mental and creative benefits of making art, they can also receive monetary rewards. If a work of art sells, an inmate is allowed to keep 70 percent of the selling price. The other 30 percent goes to maintaining art supplies and staff.
“Even if you don’t have any skills, on any normal day, no one wants to sit in a prison cell all day long,” Kelley says. “I think it’s very nice for them to have something to do other than sit in a cell all day long. The other part is, if you have a skill, you need to come out and use that skill. The third part is, there is nothing wrong with having a skill and being paid for what you produce.”
While curating the exhibit, Killian claims that she “had favorites from the beginning.” In creating her exhibit, Killian wanted to connect the work done by offenders with the work by artists on the “outside.”
“I was interested in drawing comparisons between the work produced in the Prison Arts Program and artistic tradition in the local art scene,” Killian says. “I also wanted to showcase the diversity of the program and bring in work that represented the whole body of work being produced.”
Of the works showcased, Killian’s personal favorites were paintings by Jamal Wicks, an artist whom she compared to Andrew Wyeth, an artist based in Chadds Ford, Pa. who was known for his landscape paintings. Wicks’ scenes included “The Townsend Barn” and a watercolor of a family listening to a radio, a work that Killian liked so much, she purchased it. Kelley also had favorites, stating that she liked paintings that depicted “Delawarean” landscapes, or paintings that contain images that represent the state of Delaware.
Kelley believes that the “Parallel Lives, Parallel Visions” exhibition benefitted both the incarcerated artists and the community’s perception of offenders.
“I’m not ever going to say that it erases the fact that they’re inmates, but I think somewhere down the road it helps to have that image dissipate,” Kelley says. “They’re going to come out and try to get back into society and do the right things and live a good life. Basically, I think the program gives the offenders hope.”