Untitled by Derrick Quintero and Ann Catherine Carter. From the “Surrogate Project”
Artist and educators, Paris and Williams coordinate the best prison arts program I’ve never written about.
They work in tandem with prisoners on death row in Tennessee. The Riverbend Maximum Security Institution imprisons 79 people on death row. Eleven prisoners — Abu Ali Abdur’Rahman, G’dongalay Berry, Tyrone Chalmers, Gary Cone, John Freeland, Kennath Artez Henderson, Nikolaus Johnson, Donald Middlebrooks, Harold Wayne Nichols, and Derrick Quintero among them — have worked with Paris and Williams on a few projects. I have admired their practice for a long time.
I’d be embarrassed about bringing their work to you when they are already so far down their creative paths if I didn’t think they still had long and beautiful journeys planned out.
You can see a lot of their work, stretching back 18-months, on the R.E.A.C.H. Coalition blog.
Earlier this year, in Nashville TN, in collaboration with artists from Watkins College of Art they produced the exhibition Unit 2 (part 1) from which several of the images included herein originated. Recently, they completed Unit 2 (part 3). In both cases they partnered with small local galleries to put on the events.
Photos feature heavily in the collaborations between the condemned men and outside artists. For the series “Add-Ons” an outside artist would provide a prompt in the form of a drawing or piece of writing but often an image. The prisoner would then add to it by either drawing or writing directly on the print, or riffing off of it in words and sketches to create a second companion piece.
For the series “Surrogate” a prisoner would make a request for someone on the outside to do something for them by proxy — to enjoy a library full of books, to eat a hearty breakfast prepared to precise specifications, or to make a family portrait. In many cases the evidence and *shared experience* was documentation usually in the form of a photo.
AN ADVOCATE’S MESSAGE
While the process in producing these works is necessarily personal and intimate, the sharing of the artwork and the political urgency needn’t be. Paris, Williams et al. want to use exhibitions as moments for discussion and public education. Namely, they want to contribute to the anti-death penalty movement. As Paris told Hyperallergic, “The system of legal defense for capital cases is shoddy and poorly funded at best; there are no rich people, to my knowledge, on death row. We incarcerate more of our population than any other country. I could go on and on. It’s shameful. It’s not who we think we are as a country.”
This isn’t prison fetishism. The men on death row alongside the artists and students corralled by Paris and Williams are collaborators in the fullest sense. I think it is significant that the winning proposal was written by the prisoners; I think it may have been a deciding factor for the judges on the quality, intent and pedagogy of the art.
The prisoner-artists’ proposal reads:
During the past year, the state of Tennessee has staged a nearly unprecedented offensive against those individuals it has sentenced to die. A state that has executed only six people since 1960 has recently scheduled ten executions. As prisoners on death row, and imminent victims of that state-sponsored violence, we represent the “bare life” described so powerfully by historians and philosophers. During the past two years, however, through an unusual partnership with artists, writers, and educators in Nashville, we have endeavored to make our circumstances visible to those beyond the walls of prison. Through published writings and art exhibitions, we have addressed a public that knows as little of our lives as they do of the indignities of belly chains or the menacing shimmer of razor wire.
Our past exhibitions have often included collaborations with artists and art students on the outside. We have created “add-on” drawings (exquisite corpses, more or less) with people beyond the prison, and we have started sketchbooks before sending them out for strangers to finish. We have composed “surrogate” assignments for outsiders to realize (photographs of the stars, for instance, which some of us haven’t seen in 25 years, or the libraries in cities that we will never visit). We have made gifts of our art works and offered them to visitors to the opening of an exhibition in exchange for their photographic portraits. In one show, we exhibited a diorama that traces the all-too-common path from poverty to prison, and in other, we exhibited our personal snapshots and family photos to offer the world a glimpse of our social lives and to show that we are more than prisoners and men condemned to death
In response to your call, we propose an exhibition that will feature designs for our own memorials alongside our representations of the lives we would pursue if we were free. We have all been condemned to death, and the state of Tennessee intends to kill us, but some of are innocent, and we all hope to demonstrate that we are more than the sum of our worst deeds—or that we might be.
The works we will submit will include drawings, paintings, photographs, models, and text-based pieces. Some of us will submit statements outlining reasons for refusing to design their own memorials.
Kudos to them and all involved. Hope to be in NYC when it shows! Robin Paris and I are currently in conversation and I hope to share that back-and-forth with you in the future, but until then, I’d like to use this recent success as an excuse to share some images of the prisoners’ work.
Upreyl Mitchell and Harold Wayne Nichols, “Untitled” (add-on artwork), acrylic and colored pencil on photograph, 13″ x 9″ in (photo courtesy Robin Paris)
Mika Agari, Jessica Clay, Amy Clutter, Robert Grand, Kristi Hargrove, Robin Paris, Sharon Stewart, Tom Williams, Weng Tze Yang, and Barbara Yontz, “Surrogate Project for Harold Wayne Nichols: Breakfast for Dinner,” photograph.
Donald Middlebrooks, ‘Silence is Compliance’ (acrylic on canvas board)
‘The Night Sky’ by Robin Paris and Tom Williams with writing by Gary Cone, Harold Wayne Nichols, and Donald Middlebrooks. From the Surrogate Project
Nickolus Johnson and Zack Rafuls, “Untitled” (add-on drawing), mixed media on paper, 14 x 11 in.
Photograph and drawing, by Upreyl Mitchell and Kennath Artez Henderson. From the Surrogate Project.
Robin Paris is associate professor and chair of the Department of Photography at Watkins College of Art, Design & Film in Nashville, Tennessee. She is a graduate of The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, and the Savannah College of Art and Design, and she has taught at Belmont University and The University of the South, Sewanee. Her work has appeared in exhibitions throughout the country. She has been co-facilitating the art workshop in Unit 2 (the Death Row unit) of the Riverbend Maximum Security Institution since 2013. Her recent work has involved collaborations with its residents.
Tom Williams is assistant professor of art history at Watkins College of Art, Design & Film in Nashville, Tennessee. He is a graduate of Stony Brook University and the Whitney Museum Independent Study Program, and he has taught at the School of Visual Arts, the Museum of Modern Art, New York University, and Vanderbilt University. His writings have appeared in Art in America, Grey Room, and other publications. He has been co-facilitating the art workshop in Unit 2 (the Death Row unit) of the Riverbend Maximum Security Institution since 2013.
apexart is a non-profit arts organization in Lower Manhattan that was conceived to offer opportunities to independent curators and emerging and established artists, as well as to challenge ideas about art, its practice and curation. apex art is at 291 Church Street, New York, NY 10013 USA and it puts on exhibitions, Fellowship Program, publications, and public programs. It is free. Contact is 212 431 5270 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Hours are Tues – Sat 11am-6pm.
UNSOLICITED PROPOSAL PROGRAM
Anyone, from anywhere, may submit an idea-based exhibition to the Unsolicited Proposal Program. Each annum, three winning proposals are presented at apexart as part of its year-long calendar. Proposals remain anonymous and judged by an international group of 100+ artists, curators, writers and arts professionals. Each juror reads at least 50 proposals, in randomized order. Each proposal receives as many as 25 votes.
“We believe it is the most objective and fair process of evaluation that we have found,” says apexart. “Submissions are reviewed anonymously and solely on the strength of their idea. Previous curatorial experience is in no way required. Supplemental materials are not accepted to further level the playing field.”
The eventual ranking of proposals is made available online to all applicants.