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Art by state inmates on display at Bucknell University

Beyond the walls

October 16, 2011
By BRIAN BUSH ( , Williamsport Sun-Gazette

LEWISBURG - A boy with almond eyes wears a look of happy anticipation; a Native American chieftain in wood-cut profile stares into the distance; a singer grips a 1950s-era microphone and shakes a tambourine. These are some of the works that make up "Freehand," an exhibition of artwork created by Pennsylvania inmates, which is on display at Bucknell's Samek Art Gallery through Dec. 4. The exhibition features nearly 50 works in a range of artistic mediums, including drawing, painting, sculpture and copper relief.

"Freehand" is guest-curated by Shawna Meiser, who is also the project coordinator for the Lewisburg Prison Project, a nonprofit group that advocates for inmates' civil rights regarding their conditions of confinement, such as safety and access to medical care. In a phone interview with the Sun-Gazette, Meiser said the exhibition's primary aim is to counter the public's preconceived ideas about inmates.

"It seems people too often think of prisoners as crimes instead of human beings," she said. "This exhibition is not meant to condone prisoners' illegal actions, but to foreground the humanity that is evidenced in their artwork."

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BRIAN BUSH/Sun-Gazette
“Freehand” is an exhibition that features nearly 50 artworks made by Pennsylvania inmates. The reception will be held at 7 p.m. Nov. 8 and the show will be on display until Dec. 4.

Meiser said she wanted the name "Freehand" to represent the aims she and others had in mind when putting together the exhibition.

"I wanted the name to focus on the inmates' artistic ability and potential," she said. "It's also a play on words, as in 'freehand' drawing."

Meiser, who has a background in social sciences and a master's degree in museum studies, said this is the first time she has curated in a gallery space.

"It's interesting how my two primary interests came together in curating this exhibition," she said.

Meiser worked with 10 different correctional facilities across the state, liaising with each prison's activities director. She said a secondary aim of the exhibition is to encourage more prisons to implement arts programs. Funding for such programs has decreased dramatically since the 1990s, when prison arts programs enjoyed a kind of hey-day.

"Funding in all sectors has been cut recently, but arts and prison funding are typically the first to go," Meiser said. "These programs are essential and don't have to cost a lot. They can be offered in small ways that can still make a big impact."

It's true. Studies have shown that inmates who participate in arts and theater programs maintain better behavior while serving their sentences. But Meiser doesn't need to rely on studies or statistics to know the value of these programs; she's heard about the benefits first-hand.

"You wouldn't believe the change in these inmates' behavior when I put a pencil in their hand," one art instructor told Meiser. "They're completely engaged."

This artistic engagement encourages psychological health and helps inmates transition back into society more successfully.

The work featured in the exhibition was created in various conditions, some more formal than others. While some of the inmates completed work in a classroom setting, others worked independently, turning their cells into makeshift studios.

"Many are prolific creators," Meiser said. "They create prolifically because it is an outlet for their thoughts, because communication is so restricted inside. For many, it's also a coping tool. Prison is an extremely stressful environment to live in from day to day."

Meiser hopes "Freehand" will promote a dialogue of ideas between inmates and those on the outside.

"The exhibition presents the canvas as a common space for conversation - a safe space where artist and viewer can exchange ideas," Meiser said.

It is a conversation that would not be possible without an outlet like "Freehand."

Prior to the exhibition, these artist-inmates did not have a voice that could reach those beyond prison walls. "Freehand" has given them that voice.

"It gives them a chance to present themselves in a positive way," Meiser said. "The majority of the art hits on very basic aspects of human experience that many of us on the outside take for granted, like being in nature or spending time with your children. I hope this will get people thinking about the potential of these inmates, their human potential."

Ultimately, "Freehand" delivers freedom to those on both sides of the canvas. For the artist, it provides a degree of mental freedom in the midst of physical confinement. For the viewer, it provides an opportunity to reexamine our assumptions, to free ourselves from preconceptions that affect not just the inmates themselves, but their relatives and loved ones. This is altogether fitting. One could say that art is fundamentally about challenging our underlying assumptions about the world. By allowing us to perceive those things we take for granted in new ways, art bestows the greatest freedom of all.

An opening reception for "Freehand" will be held at 7 p.m. Nov. 8 at the Samek Art Gallery. Phyllis Kornfeld, a prison art instructor, will deliver a lecture on criminal justice and the arts.



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