Portraits illustrate prison epidemic

On Wednesday, Feb. 20, Professor at Rutgers University Nicole R. Fleetwood delivered the Clafin Lecture in an event sponsored by the Art Department and the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center. Courtesy of Nicole Fleetwood.

Mass incarceration is an epidemic in the U.S., home to 25 percent of the world’s prison population and only five percent of the world’s people (American Psychological Association, “Incarceration nation,” 10.2014). Despite its ubiquity, from smaller-scale jails to teeming state and federal prisons to publicly traded corporations, the U.S. corrections system remains perplexing to many citizens. Media outlets and policymakers frequently render the prison system an unquestioned characteristic of the country—too daunting to be tackled in political debates, much less through legislation. Likewise, there is a tendency to neglect the humanity of the millions of incarcerated people and their loved ones. Examining imprisoned people’s art is a not only a study of this system, but also a means to display the functions of portraiture and the artists’ strong will.

Nicole R. Fleetwood explained the value of such a practice on Wednesday, Feb. 20 when she delivered the Claflin Lecture, “Interior Subjects: Portraits by Incarcerated Artists.” A former Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow, Fleetwood studied Visual Literacy at Vassar from 2001 to 2003. She is now an accomplished writer, curator and professor of American Studies at Rutgers University. Fleetwood wrote the forthcoming “Marking Time: Art in the Era of Mass Incarceration” and the 2015 piece “On Racial Icons: Blackness and the Public Imagination.” She co-edited an issue of Aperture Magazine, “Prison Nation,” which focused on the role of photography in representing the prison industrial complex and convicts themselves. Her projects about the visual culture of punitive captivity are those of personal interest; she talked about her cousin, Allen, who received a life sentence at 18 years old, and who writes to Fleetwood regularly. He sends her pictures taken by incarcerated photographers, posing, sometimes with props, in front of painted backdrops also made by inmates. Other photos, which stood out as cheerful and incredibly tangible, were taken on visits to Allen. They had dates on the bottom and depicted the family with their arms around each other. People at her lectures often approach her with their own stories about incarcerated relatives and their art, said Fleetwood, the timbre of her voice rising. She also gets mailed art samples.

For “Interior Subjects,” which was sponsored by the Art Department and the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, she focused on portraiture, “the most common type of artmaking in prisons.” Fleetwood organized the lecture around an extensive lineup of artists, discussing both individual approaches and some of the uniting elements of art from and of incarcerated people. Lou Jones photographed people on death row, focusing on gesture and expression rather than his subjects’ being “condemned.” “Prison Nation” featured pictures from Jack Lueders-Booth, whose projects include “Women Prisoners,” about female inmates from a Massachusetts women’s prison in the 1980s and 1990s when inmates could still wear regular clothes. Zora J. Murff ’s series “Corrections” captures those held in children’s detention centers. Subjects cover their faces with their hands to maintain anonymity. Many of Deborah Lester’s stoic prison portraits were taken at the Louisiana prison Angola, the country’s largest maximum-security facility. Aidan Heck ’19, who approached Fleetwood after the lecture, remarked, “Angola is not taught in classrooms and only mentioned casually in conversations. I’m from Louisiana, and it is good to hear issues of race and incarceration in a formal setting.”

Fleetwood pointed out that people in prisons, who don’t have access to recording technology, are aware of the role of the camera in stigmatizing them—the mugshot is a mode of “racializing criminality” that often renders the incarcerated population dehumanized and homogenous. Similar to the pictures of non-incarcerated photographers like Murff, art from within serves to dismantle stigma. Take George Anthony Morton, confined to ten years in federal prison as a nonviolent offender, where he devoted his 20s to “[studying] the great masters.” He would come to study at the Florence Academy of Art and win the school’s best portrait of the year in 2016. Historically, portraiture is, in the lecturer’s words, a “tool of veneration,” a way to elevate and “historicize” the most important people in a society.

Being a portrait artist, then, involves picking your subject matter and choosing who is important. By claiming this authorial power, Morton superseded structures of racism and the limitations of his captivity. Tommy Tomikawa ’21 asked the lecturer about such functions of artmaking in prison: “I found the lecture extremely interesting, especially when looking at art and where it stems from different people…as a coping mechanism.”

Material study of art from incarcerated people exemplifies their great ingenuity. Not only do drawings serve as currency in prisons, where ownership of beautiful objects is valuable, but they are also made out of nontraditional media. Jesse Krimes, who spent the first year of his sentence in solitary confinement, produced hundreds of portraits on bars of soap. Lisette Oblitas-Cruz used Bristol pad and gel pens. Daniel McCarthy of a federal prison in Texas worked with lunch bags and pencil. Russell Craig maintained a mixed-media approach even after his release, making an eight-foot-high self portrait out of all his prison records. Filled with errors, the work expresses his reinvention and defies the system of “punitive captivity” that served as his source material.

According to Fleetwood, “The system is overwhelming and that is part of its power: to make people feel completely and totally isolated, depressed and helpless.” (Dazed, “How photography shines a light on America’s dark prison system,” 03.22.2018) Portraits, of course, remain exercises in “aesthetic discernment” and testaments to artists’ resourcefulness when they come from incarcerated people. But they also represent, as Fleetwood stated, a “really intense type of authorial power,” and a way to chip away at the structures that detain the artists.

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