In what may be the most ambitious statewide art initiative in years, the prison reform group Freedom & Captivity is mounting fourteen actual and virtual exhibitions related to the experiences of inmates in Maine past and present.

The exhibition that first caught my attention is Freedom & Captivity: Voices Beyond Prison Walls at the Union of Maine Visual Artists Gallery in the Portland Media Center at 516 Congress St. (3 September through 29 October). The UMVA show features 80 works by 40 artists who are currently or have in the past been incarcerated.

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John Gomes, In Solidarity and Struggle, 2021.

When I inquired about the exhibition, Catherine Besteman, the Colby College anthropology professor who coordinates Freedom & Captivity, informed me that “The UMVA exhibition is a component of a statewide initiative called Freedom & Captivity that includes 13 other exhibitions (including Art Inside, at Ticonic Gallery in Waterville [13 September to 30 October] and the digital exhibition Art on Abolition that launches 2 September), as well as documentary work, workshops inside prisons, a calendar of events, a podcast, background information, and action steps toward abolition.”

Art Inside and a companion exhibition at the Portland Public Library called Art in Captivity [15 September to 15 October in the PPL windows on Congress St.] will feature photographs of art inside Maine’s five prisons taken by Maine-based photographers Trent Bell, Aaron Flacke, Lesley MacVane, and Séan Alonzo Harris.”

The fall lineup also features exhibitions at the University of New England Gallery, Maine Historical Society, Colby College Museum of Art, First Amendment Museum, the Institute of Contemporary Art at Maine College of Art, and SPACE in Portland. Check the Freedom & Captivity website for details.The announcement of the UMVA inmate art show reminded me that back in 2018, some UMVA members disagreed with one another about the issues raised when three works of art by a convicted sex offender were removed from an exhibition at the University of Southern Maine’s Lewiston-Auburn campus. Some called it censorship; others felt it was just being sensitive to victims of crime.

UMVA Portland Chapter member John Ripton, who had work in the controversial USM show, wrote a letter at the time to USM president Glenn Cummings demanding the artworks be restored. As Freedom & Captivity prepared to open, Ripton was indeed sensitive to the feelings of crime victims.

“We have diminished the possibility that anyone will be personally offended or traumatized by the works in the show,” said Ripton, “by making the works anonymous.”

There are also Department of Corrections policies related to naming inmates. Enforced anonymity is just one of the many issues raised by the Freedom & Captivity project. How free are you when your name is held captive?

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Peter Merts, Leaping Men, inkjet print, 20 x 16 in., 2015.

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Yannick Lowery, Learnin’, paper collage, 10″ x 12″, 2020.

The United States incarcerates people at a higher rate than any other country in the world. Even though Maine has one of the lowest violent crime rates and one of the lowest incarceration rates in the country, we still incarcerate people at a higher rate than most countries do.

If you’ve never been imprisoned or had loved ones who were, there’s a good chance you’ve never given serious thought to the moral and social dimensions of prison, let alone to the idea of abolishing prisons as we know them.

“Generally speaking,” explains Catherine Besteman, “I would say that folks who identify as abolitionists are opposed to harm and violence, and are in favor of transforming the way we as a society respond to harm and violence . . . If punitive imprisonment actually reduced violence, we would have no more violence since we incarcerate so many people!”

Perhaps those of us who are new to the idea of abolishing prisons can begin educating ourselves by seeing the Freedom & Captivity art shows and considering the issues they raise.

(Edgar Allen Beem has been writing about art in Maine since 1978.)

This article originally appeared in the Portland Phoenix on 1 September 2021 and is reprinted here courtesy of the author.

Image at top: Eno Laget, Welcome to 2030, pochoir with hand embellishments on reclaimed real estate sign board, 2021.

The images featured in this essay are courtesy of Freedom& Captivity’s digital exhibition, Art on Abolition