Freedom & Captivity
22 October 2021–23 January 2022
University of New England Art Gallery, Portland, ME
Curated by Hilary Irons
Home is the basic concept that has been taken away from those experiencing incarceration. Home, and the chance to connect with family and loved ones as part of a domestic system. Nearly two-and-a-half million people are incarcerated in the United States, living away from home as part of the contemporary carceral system. In Maine, close to 2,500 people are living within the incarceration system and there are countless more whom the justice system has impacted in other ways. All of these people came, at some point in their lives, from a family. Whether that family is made up of relatives or friends, whether the family is numerous and close or minimal and long-lost, individuals experiencing incarceration are separated from the folks that are still at home. Those family members and loved ones are almost infinitely larger in number than the millions who are incarcerated. Their individual experiences are widely varied, but a common thread that ties them together is the fact that a loved one has had to leave home, has been impacted by the legal system, is out of reach, and that domesticity and togetherness has been altered. Even when incarceration is not the result of justice system involvement, the dynamic of friends and family is altered by its reach and implications. The domestic space changes in tone and temperament, with gaps and silences that follow family members and loved ones across their wider social environments.
Home Fires, at the University of New England Art Gallery in Portland, Maine, addresses the experience of family members and loved ones of those who have faced imprisonment. Artists often build formally complex, abstract work that is not always clearly narrative but comes from deep emotional investment. The artists involved in Home Fires make work that spans a wide range of responses, from the directly referential to the tangentially but deeply related. Many of the artists in the exhibit have a family member or loved one who has gone through the carceral system or is currently incarcerated, and others take the subject matter as a starting place to build a new visual story around the complexity of this issue.
The abstract or conceptual nature of much of the work in Home Fires underscores the meaningful practice of self-expression and creative activity outside of a strictly narrative interpretation. Kim Wilson, an artist and activist who, in her words, “uses art as a tool for healing from carceral trauma,” works in a broad range of methods, from quaint, colorful portraits to her “Beyond Prisons” podcast on the topic of incarceration and abolition. Her abstract paintings occupy a space of contemplation and balance in a creative life that also contains turmoil and trauma. Mai Snow creates lush, mysterious paintings that hover in a dreamy space between the figurative and the non-objective. While not specifically pointing toward a narrative origin, their work indicates a world of imagination and reverie that transcends daily life, while still dipping occasionally into the pain and tension that come with experience. Lauren Tosswill’s work is performance-based and centered in a place of raw expression. Touching on the manner in which inner turmoil can flow outward into a more public space, in the form of action and noise, Tosswill’s work radiates force and bodily presence. The TUG Collective—Gaelyn and Gustavo Aguilar—creates work that spans a range of media and representational forms, from video to abstract prints, in order to discuss life in a family unit that has been touched by the carceral system. In the practice of Julie K. Gray, media are also broad-ranging in the service of narrative. Her sculptural work posits a new form of domesticity in the visitation rooms where families and incarcerated loved ones interact. Her photographic work revolves around the appearance of a constructed spirit entity, photographed inside the real spaces of abandoned prison sites. Forrest Meyer uses the material of family history—in this case, a collection of personalized office stationery which belonged to their grandfather—to create a gridded system of drawings entitled Equicor that explores the family dynamic as both a motivating creative force and a system that embodies the complexities of what we take from our family culture. Artist and restorative justice advocate Carol Ayoob also focuses on family ties; the element of time appears in her textile piece Our Daily Thread, which was woven daily to mark the time of a loved one’s term under incarceration. And photographer Judy Glickman Lauder extends the narratives of both family and incarceration through her haunting images of World War II-era concentration camps. Her work is a powerful reminder that family can be a broad term, and that incarceration itself is far from benign in its motivations.
Through this plurality of visions, in which family is placed at the center of a conversation about freedom and captivity, Home Fires hopes to offer a site for both thinking about the force of creativity and acknowledging the power that trauma has to alter the tracks on which our lives run fundamentally. When “home” becomes an abstract and thorny concept due to the incarceration of a family member or loved one, its basic nature has been transformed. Through artmaking and the communicative voice of visual language, the artists of Home Fires offer a vision of a world in which freedom comes into our lives stealthily and takes a wide variety of forms.
“Home Fires: Incarceration and Children”
Please join us in an interactive event at (link TBA at website) to discuss the pressures of incarceration on Maine’s families and children. This event, free and open to the public, will be broadcast live in conjunction with “Freedom and Captivity: Home Fires” at the UNE Art Gallery
Image at top: Julie K. Gray, Self-Portrait as Ghost in Mid-Orange Correctional Facility (No. 1), C-print. 16 x 24 in., 2021.