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Criminal justice system explored through art project

February 17, 2011

It’s not just black and white explores Arizona’s criminal justice system through the eyes of those who experience it.

The three-month long art project, which runs until May 14, is part of the ASU Art Museum’s Social Studies approach to artistic expression. This project looks at incarceration through artistic gestures and interactions with inmates.

Facets will include a dance with mothers who are behind bars and their daughters on the outside, an inside/outside prison writing workshop, and tearing down a temporary wall within the gallery space  by collaborators after thoughts about incarceration have been written and drawn on its surface. The project’s goal is to host conversations, panels and workshops within the gallery that allow for balanced, open conversation around a pressing topic.

“The Social Studies initiative explores the creative process and engages the audience. It starts with an empty gallery and unfolds,” said John D. Spiak, ASU Art Museum curator.

This project engages art through interaction, and will grow to involve not only the artist and the viewing public, but also a range of criminal justice system constituents, including incarcerated men and women and their families, parolees, ex-inmates, correctional officers, elected officials, government employees and media representatives, as well as researchers from disciplines of study across ASU and from the community. The interaction between all of these parts will be used to frame a dialog about incarceration.

“I question why the United States is the leader in incarcerations,” said artist Gregory Sale, who conceived the project and is a visiting assistant professor in the ASU School of Art. 

It starts with low-risk inmates coming into the closed gallery under law-enforcement guard to help paint stripes on the walls, similar to those that they wear every day in the Maricopa County jail. Inmates are participants in ALPHA, a Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office rehabilitative and re-entry program, and are within six months of release. All inmates have volunteered to participate in the project at the museum.

Stripes have been associated with bad behavior for centuries. “In an Italian mural from the 13th Century, we see early evidence of stripes on the clothing of condemned prostitutes,” Sale said.

Another portion of the Social Studies art project involves female inmates at Estrella Jail who are taking dance classes at the jail through the Journey Home Project. Their daughters will join them in dance at the gallery through video after the girls take dance classes from instructors in the Girl Scouts Beyond Bars program. The program will be led by choreographer Elizabeth Johnson, coordinator, public practice for the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, and dancer Teniqua Broughton, an ASU alumna.

“We’ll have a virtually connected dance workshop,” Sale said.

An Inside/Outside Prison Writing Workshop features writers reading about their experiences as present or former convicts and prison workers, along with prison writing-workshop volunteers and former participants in the program who will lead interactive writing exercises. This program builds on University of Arizona Regents’ Professor Richard Shelton’s 30 years as a prison volunteer with the Arizona State Prison Complex.

“At the end of April, we’ll literally tear down the wall,” Sale said. “It becomes a way of taking down the walls and rethinking the institution and the structure of how society views incarceration.”

It’s a conversation that needs to happen during a time when more dollars go toward incarceration than education, Sale said. “Every public sector is taking major cuts except incarceration,” he added.

Tours of Tent City jail are part of the project. In addition, use of the gallery will be offered to groups that deal with incarceration, public safety and civil justice for meetings or other events. The submission and review process for events and meetings related to It’s not just black and white is by committee and is spearheaded by Sale.

Funding for It’s not just black and white was provided by a grant from The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts. Research funding is legally restricted and cannot be used for instructional or other purposes.

In addition to Social Studies, The ASU Art Museum offers numerous programs and opportunities for families and youth to engage with the museum and its staff. These include First Saturdays, featuring hands-on activities for kids, and Family Fun Day, a popular summer event for children of all ages, which coincides with the museum’s Family Exhibition.

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