Disclaimer: Per Maine Department of Corrections policy, residents will be addressed by their first names only.
How do you escape restrictive walls when you are incarcerated? Individuals living at Maine correctional facilities have found that creating art allows their imagination to soar.
Art by incarcerated people is featured in an exhibition titled Freedom & Captivity: Maine Voices Beyond Prison Walls at the Union of Maine Visual Artists Gallery in Portland from 3 September to 29 October 2021.
Residents of Maine’s prisons express their lived experiences, hopes, and dreams in the art they create. Their artwork defies stereotypes and emphasizes that we are all more than the worst act we have committed. Through their art, those living inside convey the message that “We are whole people with loves and losses, skills, talents, ideas, and gifts . . . and a longing to be free.”
Making art within a prison is not easy. While Maine State Prison has a well-established art program and a commitment to rehabilitative programming, the residents are limited to two-hour shifts and six seats in the studio. Except for three-inch colored pencils, their materials must be left in the art room. (Special permission for paints was made upon request for this project.) Residents would benefit from a larger art room, standard art supplies, and full-sized materials.
One resident, Russ, finds drawing to be a lifeline to happiness within a lengthy sentence. Due to his restricted access to art materials, Russ draws upon found paper bags. He tears the brown material into organic shapes, ripping holes in places, leaving jagged edges exposed. He then flattens the paper and draws nature scenes surrounded by colorful, flowing lines. A layer of floor wax atop the works helps the colors glisten even more. One work, on darker paper, presents a chameleon perched on a sprouting tree branch. Brightly colored dots and lines are painted on top of its exposed green skin. It’s walking in slow, yet cautious, motion. With red scales and a rainbow-colored body, the chameleon is a thing of beauty, with potential emanating from within.
This subject matter is intriguing. Why the chameleon—a small animal that alters its exterior to its surrounding environment? Its decorative scales strikingly resemble the heavy-inked tattoos that cover the majority of Russ’ pale skin. Perhaps the chameleon embodies a transformation from life in freedom to life in captivity or a deeper sense of external morphing necessary to survive inside a prison. The chameleon’s ever-changing skin signals the difference between life inside and outside the prison, of living in a constant state of transition and perpetual anxiety. The chameleon reveals the profound disjunction between one’s internal world and external presentation, the experience of living an existence beneath a patterned skin that masks the truth below. In the end, the chameleon comes to represent the conflicting realities of a man imprinted with inscriptions of experience and pain, but whose life remains invisible to the surrounding world.
A series of paintings made by Colin captures personal longing juxtaposed against the reality of prison life. In Afternoon Reprieve, an acrylic on canvas, two men sit on the hood of a Chevy while sunlight filters through the surrounding trees. The figures have pulled off the road onto a dirt track and are relaxing, beverage in hand. As viewers, we relate to the sense of peace found at a beloved nature spot. We believe we have been there, enjoyed this moment, and are reconciled to the fact that it will not come again.
Colin’s Stands Alone, shows a solitary face reflecting the afterglow of the setting sun. The figure stares out over a razor-wire fence with trees and a darkening sky in the distance. There is an overwhelming sense of loneliness and longing, a “Groundhog Day”-like futility. Tomorrow, and the next day, he will awaken in the same place, eat the same food, walk the same halls, destined to repeat the same patterns for eternity.
Force Burn, though diminutive in size, is powerful in its transformation of the sadness in Stands Alone. Colin mobilizes despair into a superhuman figure whose energy is able to burn through the metal fence that holds the prison’s residents captive.
Colin’s most recent painting, Bird on a Wire, is accompanied by two poems by fellow resident, Leo, in which the poet compares himself to a seagull (see addendum). In the painting, a gull has landed on and been captured by the razor wire fence and died. It is a stark picture: a blue sky, a never-ending line of coiled razor wire on top of the fence, the decomposing body of the bird, and the distant treeline. The fence has taken the bird’s life, as it has the residents’ hopes and dreams. For some, the fence will be the silent witness to their last breaths.
Altogether, Colin’s paintings offer a narrative of psychological isolation and physical captivity accompanied by a fervent desire to be free. They speak to the pain of captivity, wistful memories, and a longing for better times that resonate throughout the other artworks.
While Colin had been painting for years as an art instructor inside the prison, another resident, Chris, had never picked up a paintbrush in his life until late July 2021. While he dabbled in drawing 15 years ago, now in prison, he was inspired to paint by Bob Ross’s PBS show that aired each morning.
A family member once asked what the view from his cell window was like or if he had a window. He told them it was a great view of the outdoors. In a statement, Chris said: “Was it a lie? Yes, but their minds were at ease, so it was OK.” While staring out his cell window, he took in the real view: a cement wall. He began drawing and painting what he imagined was behind the wall: a setting sun with a lingering purple sky overlooking rolling hills and tall, bushy trees (Purple Landscape). Chris’s images are not idealized scenes; some tree branches remain leafless and others broken. One cannot help but notice the darkness cast over the whole landscape. Yet, it is not the darkness that persists in Chris’s painting, but the bright light emanating from its center, light that is only amplified by his warm colors and delicate brush strokes, details that leave the viewer with a sense of tenderness and calm. It is this very light that created the world that remains.
When asked about the message behind the painting, Chris said: “They can take our bodies, but not our minds.” Even while living in prison, imagination and creativity roam free. Art is Chris’s self-expression and allows him to escape the constricting walls he lives in. Painting, drawing, and writing are vehicles to transport Chris and other inmates into freedom and perhaps, an inner peace. That rings true in many of the works in the show: a voice yearning to be free and, more importantly, heard. It’s our job to listen.
Freedom & Captivity: Maine Voices Beyond Prison Walls is open at the Union of Maine Visual Artists Gallery at the Portland Media Center and will be on view until Friday, 29 October 2021. Along with the visual arts, fiber arts, and sculpture, the exhibit also includes the voices of residents in poetry and music available in digital files. From songs written for daughters to paintings made for loved ones who passed on without a goodbye, the work centers the inmates’ humanity, allowing the viewer to connect with the artists through the commonality of individual interest, love, and care.
Freedom & Captivity: Maine Voices Beyond Prison Walls is on view from 3 September–29 October 2021.
Gallery Hours: Tuesday–Thursday 10 a.m.–5 p.m; Friday 4–8 p.m; Saturday–Sunday 1–4 p.m.
The show is being held by the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition in support of the state-wide Freedom & Captivity initiative. It is supported by funds from Colby College and the Maine Humanities Council.
This exhibition was made possible by the tireless work of the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition, notably Assistant Director Jan Collins, Project Curator Olivia Hochstadt, and the support of Freedom & Captivity Founder and Coordinator Catherine Besteman, the UMVA Board and member John Ripton, Portland Media Center Executive Director Tom Handel, Videographer Dean Raymond, Maine State Prison Director of Programs Anthony Cantillo, Correctional Care and Treatment Worker Jason Palmer, Programs Coordinator Michael Fournier, and, most importantly, all the artists creating at Maine State Prison and Maine correctional facilities.
what beauty God gave you,
strength to soar and swim
through vast seas of sky,
tiny against great heavens.
such grace do I bear witness,
swooping toward glittering blades
who seek your life, and weep
at your safe passing.
no dumpster here, you
forsake fresh field, resting
rather upon rotting food,
institutionalized horse manure.
your brethren’s screams
keep feet light, you eat
till full, set aflight once more,
dancing about the heavens.
my nostrils filled with
simmering concrete, eyes
reflecting steel, longing to join,
if only for this hour.
Alone Together, Imprisoned and Free
We are imprisoned and free, she and I
confined to an existence separate, apart
looked upon as little more—or little less
than scavengers of garbage, stealers of
french fries, sandwiches, joy, and life
Yet, when she twirls midair, sun at her back
when my mind creates a world, a life at peace
you cannot tell us we are not free. It is you,
you, who are in prison.
You, who hears our unanswered cries
our screams for love, food, and compassion
You, who scorns our existence, who closes
eyes, ears, hearts, and minds to our pleas:
See us! Hear us! Acknowledge our beauty! Our worth!
So, here I sit, surrounded by concrete and steel, there
she flies, bathed in sunlight, caressed by clouds
Both imprisoned and free
Both longing for more
Both alone together.
Image at top: Colin, Force Burn, (detail), acrylic on canvas, 8 x 10 in., 2018 (photo courtesy of Jan Collins).