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Inmates in U. of I. justice project organize art exhibition on display at YMCA

W.B. May painting of chocolates
Photo provided by
Education Justice Project

W.B. May paints out of curiosity, according to his artist’s statement in the exhibition catalog. “When I conceive an idea for a painting, the bulk of this conceptual process is the question, ‘I wonder what this would look like?’ ”

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8/23/2012 | Dusty Rhodes, Arts and Humanities Editor | 217-333-0568; rhodes8@illinois.edu

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — An art exhibition opening Aug. 30 (Thursday) in the Murphy Gallery at the University YMCA will feature drawings and paintings created by inmates of the Danville Correctional Center, a medium- to high-security prison for men. The exhibition was coordinated by five prisoners enrolled in the University of Illinois Education Justice Project – part of the College of Education – which provides upper-level college courses, workshops and seminars to inmates who have already earned 60 or more hours of college credit.

Chris Garner and other inmate with Garner's painting
Chris Garner, left, created this painting of a couple sharing a ceremonial drink from a gourd as a wedding gift for a friend. | Photo provided by Education Justice Project

EJP doesn’t offer courses in art, but EJP director Rebecca Ginsburg, a professor of education policy, organization and leadership and of landscape architecture, said a handful of EJP students initiated and developed the art exhibition. Since none of them had ever attended an art show, bringing this idea to reality provided learning opportunities. They created a flier seeking inmate art, distributed it throughout the prison, and curated the submissions, accepting every piece that met their “family-friendly” criteria. After studying a variety of art exhibition catalogs, they called a meeting of the 15 men whose work will be displayed, and taught them how to write artists’ statements introducing their work.

“Their main concern was that people who come to the exhibition not leave with the romantic idea of prisoners captured in a cell but still expressing beauty through their artwork,” Ginsburg said. “They want to be thought of as artists, first and foremost, and they want people to know that there’s nothing romantic about being in prison.”

They settled on the title “Beyond the Lines.”

“The ‘lines’ refer not only to the lines that separate them from the rest of the world, but also to the lines that regulate their lives in prison,” Ginsburg said. “In prison, everywhere you go, you go in a line – the chow line, the gym line, the library line. They wanted to say that, beyond the lines that divide and control us, there are other things going on.”

Most correctional facilities in Illinois have some sort of art program, though the format and the materials allowed are left to the discretion of each facility’s warden. At Danville, there is an “art room” with 28 lockers and a waiting list of inmates seeking access, according to Greg Watson, who recently retired from Illinois Department of Corrections after 18 years as the leisure time services supervisor assigned to the art studio.

Inmates interested in using art supplies had to show Watson work that proved some level of skill, and then take an eight-week course in pastels, acrylics or oil painting, or drawing. The classes are taught by three highly skilled inmate artists, Watson said. After the eight-week course, inmates are allowed to use some art supplies in their cells.

The opening reception, 6:30 to 8:30 p.m., will be videotaped and shared with the artists. The exhibition will be open 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily through Oct. 14 at the University Y, 1001 S. Wright St., Champaign.

Editor's note: For more information, contact Rebecca Ginsburg: rginsbur@illinois.edu or Ann Rasmus, program director at the YMCA, 217-337-1514; ann@universityymca.org.

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