Pitzer Galleries Prison Art Exhibits Encourage Discussion, Engagement, and Unity

Degrees of Visibility by Ashley Hunt, found in Lenzner Family Art Gallery. Photograph by Hezekiah Smithstein

When you think of prisons, the first thing that comes to mind probably isn’t art. Maybe you think of violence, tattoos, or Orange is the New Black—but not photographs of people in a circle dancing and laughing, or a beautifully drawn replica of The Last Supper. 

Perhaps, as you explore two of Pitzer’s latest art exhibits, you realize how little you know actually know about prisons and the people inside them. The latest installations of the Pitzer Art Galleries feature the artwork of current and formerly incarcerated artists, and attempt to address and lift the veil that obscures their experiences from public view.

Disruption! Art and the Prison Industrial Complex and Degrees of Visibility have been brought to the Pitzer College Art Galleries by director and curator Ciara Ennis. Disruption! Is a multi-artist exhibit curated by guest curator Annie Buckley, while Degrees of Visibility is a photo series done by artist Ashley Hunt. According to Ennis, the exhibits aim to honor Pitzer College’s commitment to criminal justice. 

Disruption! is found in the Nichols Gallery on the first floor of Broad Center, and is an exhibit brought by the Prison Arts Collective, a program founded and currently directed by Buckley. The Prison Arts Collective (PAC) is a program which facilitates active programming in 10 prisons throughout the state of California, hosting art classes with those incarcerated populations. The program also works to display their artwork, by doing so showing the humanity, creativity, and joy that is often unseen behind those prison walls.

Drawing on her 6+ years of working with incarcerated artists and artists interested in incarceration, Buckley is using the exhibit as a way to encourage people to empathize with prisoners and acknowledge that there is not much difference between the people inside prison and those of us who walk free.

Photograph by Hezekiah Smithstein

“Consider the humanity, and artistry, and uniqueness of people who are incarcerated, and then also consider that we are not so separate,” said Buckley. “There are people inside and outside in this show, but they are all artists, they are all unified by being artists.”

Disruption! includes pieces by nine different artists—both in and out of prison—that are displayed in a variety of mediums, from paintings, to photographs, to performances. One of these artists, Stan Hunter, started learning to draw through making cards for his kids. During his 30 years in prison, he learned how to draw using pastel, charcoal, acrylic, oil, and pencil. His rendition of The Last Supper, painted in his prison cell, was a challenge to himself to make the painting look like the original piece. 

Photo by Hezekiah Smithstein

Hunter was released from prison in January. Since then, he has become the lead teaching artist of the Prison Arts Collective and has gained statewide prison clearance. With this clearance, he re-enters prisons to help people who are still incarcerated by teaching them art techniques and showing them how to use art as a way to heal and tell their stories. He then helps set up exhibits for the art that they create so that participants within prisons can have their work shared with the world. 

“That means the world to me, to take their art out and put it up and display it, and share their stories,” Hunter said. “And make the connections with people out in the community that look—these are our sons and daughters, our fathers and brothers and uncles—and this is what they’re doing.” 

Peter Merts, another featured artist, has spent the past 12 years photographing classes with California’s Arts in Corrections program. He said that the enthusiasm, thoughtfulness, and dedication of the art students has inspired him. 

“Inmates are redeemable, and many of them are looking for positivity in their lives, looking for better ways of relating in the world,” said Merts.

Photo by Hezekiah Smithstein

His experiences over the years have led him to challenge certain stereotypes about prisoners, and their treatment. Merts explained that prisoners are often over-incarcerated and under-rehabilitated, which is damaging to our society and culture. 

“Most incarcerated people will be released some day, and you may run into them or live near them,” Merts said. “Wouldn’t you like your new neighbors to have been rehabilitated through programming in prison?”

Located in the Lenzner Family Art Gallery on the north end of Atherton Hall, Ashley Hunt’s Degrees of Visibility demonstrates how the issues of our incarceration system are hidden from view, just like physical prisons themselves. Hunt’s photographs, taken over a nine year period, show images ranging from the hillside marking a concealed underground prison to a far away building beyond a barbed wire fence. The varying degrees of visibility in these photographs and descriptions provided by the prisons show the extent that incarceration is hidden. 

Both Disruption! Art and the Prison Industrial Complex and Degrees of Visibility build upon the goals of Pitzer’s Critical Justice Education Program by broadening opportunities for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals in California and helping educate students on underrepresented injustices and experiences. They have been used for a number of workshops and visited by Pitzer classes that engage with themes that the exhibit represents. 

PAC workshop held at Nichols Gallery on November 20th, 2019. Photo by Sydney Burke

Exhibitions and Communications Manager Chris Michno encourages Claremont college students and professors to continue visiting the Pitzer art gallery space.

“Think about the exhibitions that we do here not as separate and distinct from the campus, community, and curriculum, but as a way to think about interdisciplinary learning,” Michno said. 

The exhibits are open until December 6th.

Hezekiah Smithstein ‘23 is from San Francisco, California. He loves writing, music, playing board games, and nature. As such, he often finds himself in the Outback, wandering the meandering trails and contemplating life.

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