One audience that museums rarely reach is incarcerated people, even though they make up a significant portion of the U.S. population. The Georgia Museum of Art at the University of Georgia has been working on a collaborative project with Common Good of Atlanta for several years to bring art into Whitworth Women’s Facility, a prison in northeast Georgia. The exhibition “Art is a form of freedom” features works selected by the women incarcerated there and is on view through July 2. It includes works of art and writing that relate to themes of identity, motherhood, incarceration, home, childhood, social issues, memory and mysteries.
Common Good Atlanta, founded in 2010, provides people who are incarcerated or formerly incarcerated with access to higher education by connecting Georgia’s colleges and professors with Georgia’s prison classrooms. Its Clemente Course in the Humanities offers students college credit through Bard College in subjects like critical thinking and writing, literature, U.S. history, philosophy and art history.
Callan Steinmann, curator of education at the museum, and Caroline Young, lecturer of English at the University of Georgia and site director for the Common Good Atlanta program at Whitworth Women’s Facility, have worked together on this project since 2021. Their collaborative work has created an interinstitutional project that seeks to cultivate community and empathetic connection through art and writing, despite vast space, time, and resource differences.
Young’s students at UGA carefully studied the museum’s collection and selected over 140 works of art to share with Whitworth Women’s Facility students. The incarcerated women then selected the works for the exhibition and wrote prose and poetry in response to them.
“When viewed together, the works of art and the women’s writing tell a compelling story about the power of art to connect people across space and time,” Steinmann said.
With the help of Young’s students and the ways in which they represented their diverse selections, the incarcerated students were able to engage with the art in a purposeful way. Through close looking, discussion, creative writing and art making, the women at Whitworth Women’s Facility embraced individual pieces that were personally meaningful and resonant for them.
Their own work is also represented in the exhibition, which begins with a letter they wrote that reads:
“Open your mind and allow the feelings to flow as you walk in our shoes and embark on our journeys. Art is an opening; it brings clarity and insight to a simple truth amid the life we over-complicate. Creating this exhibit has built an opportunity to be mentally and emotionally free while incarcerated. We would like to express how influential this experience has been. At first, the art intimidated and challenged us, but we surprised ourselves. We acknowledged our struggles and diverse realities, giving us the opportunity to embrace our intellect, building our confidence and self-esteem. We hope this exhibit brings moments of self-reflection and moves you emotionally the way it has for us. It allowed us to think outside of the bars. We are regular people who have a voice that matters too. Our mistakes don’t define our intellect, nor do they define us. Everything you see on these walls was written creatively from the heart. This is a place where we can come together and judge the artwork instead of each other.”
Article written by: Elizabeth Benavides.Black artistFemale artistsocial justice art
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