Death-row Inmates Speak Up Through Art

As our country’s justice system continues to silence incarcerated criminals and keep them hidden away from society, Robin Parris and Tom Williams give inmates on death-row the chance to speak up to the outside world through art that represent what they would want their memorials to be. Paris and Williams are professors from Watkins College of Art, Design, & Film in Nashville. When asked to to facilitate an art program at the Riverbend Maximum Security Institution near Nashville, TN, they chose to have the inmates create art for a different purpose. Instead of creating art for simply therapeutic purposes, Williams and Paris ask that they create an artwork to serve as their own memorials. Williams tells in an interview with VICE why he chose to have the inmates make this their project. “ … It’s [an urge] I had early on—to capture that experience of living death that they endure. They [have] to think about death in a way that most people don’t. Death for them is very concrete.” By allowing inmates to speak out on this is especially effective in forcing the audience to think about what they have ignored due to our justice system silencing the incarcerated from the outer world. The audience are given a glimpse of what inmates on death-row feel about their impending deaths. For the past two years, Wilson and Paris have put on six shows in Tennessee displaying the works of these inmates. These works have also now reached a larger audience in Manhattan at a nonprofit gallery called Apexart, which supports independent curators and creators. The exhibition, Life after Death and Elsewhere, features over 30 works by a dozen of inmates. Many of the art pieces tell of the criminal’s pasts or desires. One of these works is by Kennath Artez Henderson. He chooses to depict himself as a younger male with a community center design that he thinks would have kept him from getting into trouble when he was younger. A different work by Dennis Suttles aims to remind us that beauty can be found everywhere, even in items that most would not want. Suttles chooses to create a series roses out of scrap bread from the prison cafeteria packed onto dowels and covered in acrylic paint. One of the other pieces featured compels us to notice the simple things in life that we take for granted. Akil Jahi creates a piece to represent a vivid memory from his life as an inmate. He chooses to create a model of a shoe about to step onto grass to represent the first time he had stepped onto grass himself since he was incarcerated while transferring to a different facility. It had been years since he had last made contact with a spongy surface. This piece forces us to realize just how isolated those that are incarcerated are. Gary Cone was one of the unfortunate artists that was not able to finish his work. His piece, titled I Am a Reader of Books, is a spiraling tower of novels he has read. After an infection that spread through his spine, Cone was left a paraplegic. He is now much more isolated, unable to access most books and denied visitors. This piece allows the audience to connect with criminals through such a simple, common interest as reading. By being able to relate, we are more compelled to view Cone as more human. One of the darker pieces is by Donald Middlebrooks, a criminal who had raped and violently murdered a 14 year-old boy. He creates a series of paintings that depict the rough childhood he experienced, filled with heroin addiction, prostitution, and willful committing of crimes to find escape in juvenile detention. He also hopes to express remorse, that is otherwise silenced by the justice system, to the family of the boy he murdered. This piece is especially hard to swallow and sympathize with, knowing the violent crime he committed. One of the highlights of the show is by two inmates, Ron Cauthern and Harold Wayn Nichols. Making use of the cardboard and other waste left in the prison’s common room, they construct a 13’x18’ airplane. They choose to paint distorted veins on the sides and a skull on the nose, representing their impending death. In addition, the plane included propellers that when spun, would play the song “Somewhere Out There.” The piece also features the signatures of almost every inmate on death-row in Tennessee. Cauthern and Nichols shared that this was only a small scale project of bigger idea they would not be able to create: aircrafts that would go around state capitals hanging signs that protested against death penalties. They hoped to fly them until capital punishment is outlawed in America. This piece best represents the feelings that all these inmates feel about the death penalty, and almost all of them were able to take part in this piece by signing the plane in support. These diverse works all work to question the justice system and its capital punishment. The art elicits a sense of discomfort as the audiences are forced to acknowledge the humanity in the darkest of criminals, many of them being murderers. We are so used to identifying criminals solely by the crimes they have committed, no longer seeing them as humans. However, many of these works show the rough past that influenced them into living a criminal life or allow us to relate to inmates through common interests; some also remind us just how isolated inmates are to appreciate the simple things that many of us take for granted. By humanizing them, many are compelled to question the death penalty. Do they really deserve to die for their crime? The death penalty becomes harder to accept as we are forced to realize that they are still humans with some amount of humanity in them still. Source and more photos:

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