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Art and incarceration: Annual prison show back on track at ECSU

Pandemiculous by Damian Campanella
CPA Prison Arts
"Pandemiculous," by Damian Campanella

Since 1978, people who are or have been incarcerated in Connecticut have had a creative outlet that helped them step away, even briefly, from their prison experience — the Prison Artsprogram.

Last year their annual Arts Show was canceled due to COVID-19, but this year the exhibit is back on track at Eastern Connecticut State University.

The exhibit displays artwork created over the last two years by artists currently or formerly incarcerated in Connecticut. Paintings, drawings, sculptures and other mixed media are represented in the show.

Prison Arts is the longest-running program of Community Partners in Action (CPA), a criminal justice nonprofit based in Hartford. They work inside Connecticut prisons as well as on the outside, as people return to their community, encouraging them to create art that is unique and not a reflection of their prison experience.

“That’s what it’s all about,” said Jeffrey Greene, the CPA’s Prison Arts program manager. “There are all of these genres of traditional prison art, and we are asking people to get past that and not be a mirror of the prison. It takes them a while to figure out what that’s going to be, and then all of the sudden they are making something that is purely their own. In the end, people start making artwork that could have come from Mars.”

Greene said the Prison Arts program has been a lifesaver for many incarcerated artists.

“I can tell you, again and again, people say, ‘Art saved my life. It didn’t just give me a way to live in prison, it gave me a way to live.’ It gives people tangible evidence of the value of work ethic,” Greene said. “You gotta work real hard. It’s your work. And understand that the amount you invest into your work is what you will get out of that work.”

Greene added that the annual art exhibit can be emotional, not only for the artists, but also for their families.

“Going to visit your loved one in prison can be a demeaning experience,” Greene said. “But you go to the gallery, this beautiful space. The art is dignified, they see their loved one’s name next to the art. They are standing next to their work, surrounded by other people appreciating their loved one’s artwork. It is incredibly profound.”

Greene said once the exhibit is over, the artworks are given to the families of the incarcerated people.

The Prison Arts Annual Show runs through Saturday, April 22, at the Art Gallery at Eastern Connecticut State University.

Ray Hardman is Connecticut Public’s Arts and Culture Reporter. He is the host of CPTV’s Emmy-nominated original series Where Art Thou? Listeners to Connecticut Public Radio may know Ray as the local voice of Morning Edition, and later of All Things Considered.

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