The Prison Art Project


Shadow Spaces from the Art | Crime Archive: Creativity, Culture, and Criminality
Featuring The Prison Art Project: Works by Prisoners in the Books for Prisoners Program
Curated by Brian Goeltzenleuchter and Laura Pecenco
Love Library, San Diego State University
March 1 – May 31, 2014


The Prison Art Project features works created by inmates from prisons throughout the United States. As sociologist Erving Goffman argued, prisons are total institutions, designed to manipulate and mold inhabitants through extreme regulation and standardization. Creating art in prison, then, can be a way to reclaim pieces of that identity, or create one anew; it can be a way to “kill time” in a place where time must be “done”; it can be a way to exert agency and challenge the status quo, urging the audience to reconsider assumptions about the artist. The majority of the featured works are a cross-section of the art donated directly by the inmate artists to Books for Prisoners, a student organization at the University of California, San Diego, which provided each of these individuals with free reading material. The artists, many of whom are indigent and have not received formal art training, are housed in prisons of various security levels, from minimum security to death row.

The exhibition is organized along the following questions: How does the institutional setting inform the exploration of creativity? How might the institutional environment affect the choices of iconography used in these works? How does the knowledge that the artist is incarcerated change our understanding of each piece? Are these images protesting the prison system, or reflecting it? Is the art an escape?


(Selected audio featured in exhibition)

Sutton, P (2014) Selected Interviews

Plummer, M. (2014) Effort Emerging to Bring Arts Back to California Prisons

Simon, S. (2005) Winging (and Acting) at Sing Sing NPR

Myrow, R. (2013) Tim Robbins: Inmates Discover Their Humanity Through Acting The California Report

Sale, A (2009) Transitioning Out of Prison On- Stage WNPR-CT Public Radio

PRI’s The World (2011) Artwork from Guantanamo Bay

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