The artists of “The Weight of Rage” were still present at the Hyde Park Art Center on the evening of January 16th, even though they were really some forty miles away, in Joliet’s Stateville Correctional Center. Their heroic self-portraits, their autobiographical screen prints, their voices all reciting poetry on pre-recorded audio loops gave them a virtual, even spiritual presence at the exhibit’s families and communities event. “The Weight of Rage” showcases work realized through the Prison + Neighborhood Arts Project, also known as PNAP, which brings artists and academics together from around Chicago to program and teach humanities classes for Stateville’s incarcerated men.
The art of “Weight” is centered around a guiding question: “How does the state identify you?” The artists’ answer is that the state must have an inadequate and blurry picture of them. In collaboration with PNAP’s faculty, “Weight’s” artists built out the shape and depth of their dynamic personalities. Characteristics leveled by inmate numbers and lost in stereotypes were restored, for example, by science-fictional sketches that communicated the artists’ hopes and fears for the future. Two tables—strewn with bound pamphlets of scholarly work submitted to PNAP’s classes—offered visitors a glimpse into Stateville’s vibrant intellectual life. Large banners, printed with the artists’ current reading lists, similarly described the kind of mental muscle squeezed into the show’s poetry, paintings, prints, animations, and drawings.
“Weight’s” series of self-portraits, done in acrylic paints on canvas, were powerful double-snapshots of their makers. Most self-portraits were abstract compositions painted on surfaces cut in the shape of each artist’s head. Hung at eye-level and about four to five feet tall, black contour lines usually marked the real facial features of the subject, contrasting against the riot of colors and shapes playing out over the remaining canvas.
Devon Daniels’ self-portrait shows how the canvasses talk about both physical people, behind the wall at Stateville, and vibrant, luminous beings. Daniels coordinates his painting around a center, third eye. The eye is a convex mirror that reflects a city by sunset, and radiates huge pinwheels of yellow, blue, red, and orange, down to Daniels’ beard and through his hairline. The beholder staring back at Daniels isn’t mirrored in his eyes. Daniels has a lucid, distant perspective of civilization. He instead coolly sees something that we can describe but can’t name. (Is it Chicago? Is it a fantasy?) He sees it with insight: past and through the point where we’d appear as a shadow over his vision and obstruct his outlook.
The self-portraits make conscious, artistic statements the very stuff of each man’s flesh. The artists include intricate patterns—visualized ideas—as a part of their recognizable features. The abstractions surrounding the faces announce the mystery of a mind, without offering us complete access to it: books that can’t entirely be read by their covers, but have to be learned to be known. The painters collapse two personas onto one surface, defying a prison system that recognizes their literal ID photos but can’t account for their imaginations. The acrylic paint, worked thinly and without much brushwork, penetrates evenly into the canvasses. It emphasizes the seamlessness of mind and body. Free thought is an emphatic part of who these people are.
It’s worth pointing out that the conventions of easel painting and portraiture have been made to fit the artists, and not the other way around. With the rejection of the rectangular painting, the canvas’s supporting wood meets the subject directly and assumes his figure. It breaks him out of the box. Matthew Davis keeps up this play on systems in his painting. The grid-like perspectival scheme he lays out behind his face puns on bars and chain-link fence meshing. Yet, on the other hand, Davis makes this perspective system—inflexible, Western, and not altogether truthful about how things really are—work for his own expressive purposes. It’s a deep moment of push and pull.
‘Push and pull’ might just characterize PNAP’s relationship to Stateville, a maximum-security facility with a population of over 1,600. When I spoke to Sarah Ross, program coordinator for PNAP and a professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, making art in prisons seemed a delicate, effortful undertaking.
“It’s a negotiation with every warden and IDOC administration,” she said, referencing the acronym for the Illinois Department of Corrections. “Depending on whether they privilege certain programs.”
Ross emphasized how each art project that came from Stateville had multiple makers. “When we have permission from the state or warden, we can take out the artwork.” Screen prints had to be executed from several preparatory diagrams made by inmates; the large acrylic self-portrait canvasses were conceived behind the wall, but had to be completed beyond the wall.
“You can’t bring in plywood, there! You can’t bring in a jigsaw! So, in this way, we continue to shape the work—with agreements from artists in the class—outside the class.”
PNAP provides important artistic and academic training to Stateville’s men. Yet, they equally serve as a logistical go-between: finishing the objects, locating podiums from which their ideas can speak. The organization is a pipeline for the style and sensibilities of folks at Stateville.
“The work that we do has to have a public presence,” said Ross, “because otherwise these voices would stay isolated.”
The families and communities event hosted by the Hyde Park Art Center brought that public together under one roof, the exhibit’s gallery on a Friday night. Ross and several PNAP board members addressed the urgency of providing high-quality education to Stateville’s men. Just being able to wake up and go to classes, or go to work on a painting, strengthens a man. People in prison want to do more. Their art makes potential energy kinetic.
After the event, Ross mentioned how PNAP’s partnership comes at a crucial historical moment. Higher education programs in prisons were shuttered under the Clinton administration. Volunteer initiatives like PNAP—as well as a recent push from President Barack Obama to make folks in prison eligible for Pell grants—seek to once again bring learning back behind the wall.
Spoken-word poet Lasana Kazembe performed before the families and friends in the gallery. He read work submitted by PNAP students from his poetry classes. Kazembe had to narrow down his three selections from nearly 150 pages of original writing. Each of the poets traversed big questions like: “What is beauty?” “Is there truth?” and “Who am I?” Kazembe mentioned that for one man, writing a love poem to his lady was a struggle. Giving form to his feelings was as humbling as it was technically challenging.
Kazembe’s presentation seemed to give the lie to “The Weight of Rage.” If anything, the show demonstrated how men in prison can transform the system’s heavy oppression into a whetstone for sharpening creative and scholarly minds. Rage might weigh on PNAP and its partners at Stateville, but—as the rooms full of art suggest—it does not keep them down. The show is more optimistic than the name lets on. “Weight’s” artists enlisted their talent and energy to stretch out from Stateville, affirming that they, too, share the same human craving towards fulfilling activity and deep meaning in life.