The art pieces compel you to stop and look closely. The titles of the works make you ponder. Some of the materials appear foreign. You find yourself with dozens of questions to ask the artist, but you cannot, because all of them are currently incarcerated on Tennessee’s Death Row. It is an exhibition called “Art from Death Row: Imagining Justice from the Inside Out” currently at the Sarratt Student Center in Vanderbilt University.
“ Everyone in prison is an artist, it seems,” explains Dr. Lisa Guenther, Associate Professor at Vanderbilt University. “They paint, they draw, they write poetry, they tattoo themselves and others. When they don’t have access to standard art supplies, they become even more creative, using toilet paper or white bread to create papier-mache sculptures, or scraping the pigment from M&Ms or Skittles to use as paint.” Guenther organized the show. Every week she meets with the prisoners for a philosophy discussion group: it may be Plato, political - theological function, or self-transformation. Whatever the discussion holds, the words turned into art, art made with toilet paper rolls, corn dog sticks, and color from the Sunday comics.
People who have never worked within the prison system are often amazed at what can be created from seemingly nothing. A battery, electrical tape, and a few wires can be transformed into a tattoo gun. Literally anything can become a weapon. Dr. Guenther’s group is turning what could be destructive and dangerous time into thinking work, a display of emotions and words no one else could hear otherwise.
“There’s a saying in prison: ‘Do your time – don’t let your time do you.’ Prisoners are encouraged by wardens and pastors, parole boards and philosophy professors to learn new things, to reflect on their experience, to make something of themselves in prison,” Dr. Lisa Guenther explains. “What are the possibilities for self-transformation in a situation like this ... how do you find a way to sit and to stand with dignity?”
One of the artists is sixty year old Dennis Suttles. “My art is a statement that says I still have something to offer for those who will just take a moment and see the beauty in creation.” Suttles was sentenced in 1997 for premeditated first degree murder. He has sat on Death Row for over ten years.
“Art from Death Row: Imagining Justice from the Inside Out” runs until February 14, 2013. It includes paintings to sculpture. The art seeks to convey the prison environment and to explore possibilities for living, thinking, working, and creating while on death row (source). It is not a plea to release inmates, stop prisons, or dehumanize the victims of crime. It is a look into the minds and hearts of those who are behind bars, serving the worst possible sentence, to see they are human, too.
My website - and my book on crime prevention
Credit photo of J. Yates
Credit of all artwork shown
Where to see the exhibit HERE