Defining life and love from behind bars

pencil and paper with instructions for writing about love

Last October officials in Nashville, Tenn., asked the Supreme Court to set execution dates for 10 men on death row at the Riverbend Maximum Security Institution. The request was unprecedented, as Tennessee has only put six inmates to death since 1960.

Gregory Sale, an assistant professor of art at Arizona State University, has gotten to know some of the men at Riverbend. Just prior to Tennessee’s unexpected request, Sale had begun a series of monthly workshops there, giving inmates a chance to collaborate with him on some art projects. One was featured in the traveling exhibition "More Love: Art, Politics and Sharing Since the 1990s."

Sale worked with one inmate whose sentence was commuted in November after 27 years. Soon, he will be set free. Another in the group was recently given an execution date. If the Tennessee Supreme Court grants the state’s request, several more will soon learn the exact dates on which they can expect to die. Sale heard one man describe death row as “the heart of the killing and caging machine.”

Sale is a multidisciplinary artist whose practice reaches into the community. He helped spearhead the creation of a new Certificate in Socially Engaged Practice, offered by the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts. Sale also teaches a course at ASU called Art and Community, in which students work together throughout the semester on a project that promotes social engagement.

For more than 10 years, Sale has explored the topic of incarceration and criminal justice systems. He received the most attention for his 2011 project "It’s not just black and white" at the ASU Art Museum. For this, he worked together with inmates from the Maricopa County Jail to paint black and white stripes on the gallery walls. This design served as a backdrop for a 52-event program. More than 30 institutional and community partners helped co-produce a range of exhibitions, lectures and performances, including a panel discussion with Arizona’s famously tough Sheriff Joe Arpaio, and a talk by activist Angela Davis.

“The project dared to use the visual imagery of incarceration and activate the art museum in a way that facilitated civic dialogue and conversations that weren’t happening in this community,” Sale says.

The distinctive striped uniforms, the pink underwear for men, the chain gangs comprised entirely of women or juveniles – these visuals represent complex social and political ideas, invoking different feelings in different people based on multiple and often conflicting viewpoints. Sale points out how rarely these varied perspectives can be voiced and negotiated in open public forums.

After the 2011 project, Sale continued his investigation into incarceration with projects in Pennsylvania, Texas, North Carolina and now in Tennessee.

Since the 1970s, the state of Pennsylvania has moved away from the death penalty and replaced it with life sentences without any possibility of parole. The flip side of this, however, is that the number of life-without-parole sentences in Pennsylvania has skyrocketed, including those for juveniles. With nearly 500 “juvenile lifers,” Pennsylvania now leads the nation in number of inmates sentenced as juveniles.

To explore this issue, Sale sought approval to work as a volunteer teaching artist at the State Correctional Institution in Graterford. As he built trust with the inmates, Sale invited them to collaborate with him on an upcoming exhibition at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts Museum. Ten men signed on.

One exercise involved writing down life goals and challenges, and then composing one’s own obituary. This led to a series of collaborative, text-based artworks on paper – Life is Life – that the men hoped would evoke questions and reflection amongst those who are comfortable having them “locked up and the key thrown away.”

In 2012, Sale began another project, focusing on a harsh punitive streak of the American criminal justice system, with deep roots in the American West. Working in Lubbock, Texas, he collaborated with renowned activist attorney Jeff Blackburn, who is famous for achieving the pardon of 35 wrongfully accused individuals in a 1999 Tulia, Texas, case. Together, Sale and Blackburn produced an interactive performance lecture that explored how entrenched cultural beliefs about crime and justice can evolve and give way to transformative social change.

Sale describes a powerful moment on stage in the auditorium of the Texas Tech University Art Museum, in which one family – a father (a small town constable), a mother (a victim’s advocate) and their daughter (then in drug rehab) – spoke with raw honesty about the way certain aspects of the law and personal redemption had become interwoven into their lives.

“It was profound to hear how this family was negotiating the complexity of their lives. I felt honored to witness their exchange and to hear their stories of individual challenge and growth,” Sale says.

The issues surrounding mass incarceration are more commonly in discussion today. But we largely overlook the impact of mass de-incarceration – that is, the re-entry of former prisoners back into society. Each week, more than 10,000 people are released from America’s state and federal prisons. In Maricopa County alone, there are 54,000 people under the supervision of adult probation. Strapped with the burden of finding housing and employment, the prospects for a convicted felon are dauntingly limited.

“It is undeniable that the race to incarcerate is having a profoundly negative effect on communities and families," Sale says. "Some argue that the U.S. is creating a prison class – a class of formerly incarcerated individuals who have lost the right to vote, who face steep barriers to employment or to finding a place to live.”

In a 2012 event at the Phoenix Art Museum, Sale invited the audience to watch a film and performance featuring his project "It’s not just black and white." What the audience didn’t know was that some of the same former inmates featured in the film were present among them in the crowd. Periodically, members of the audience would stand up and walk down to the front of the auditorium, taking a seat that had been reserved for honored guests. By the end of the film, 30 formerly incarcerated men and women moved from the auditorium to the stage. As the lights came up, the crowd found itself face-to-face with these ex-offenders.

Sale created this environment as a “social aesthetic investigation.” In some ways, all parties were taken out of their comfort zone – the museum visitors, who might feel less safe after realizing who was with them in the room, and the former prisoners and their families, whose identities were now exposed. Sale created a temporary safe space for both groups that enabled a meaningful conversation.

“The ‘othering’ that one might imagine would take place that evening at the Phoenix Art Museum seemed to soften. I needed to see how an aesthetic framework could support an exchange across these socially constructed boundaries, and to test what might emerge out of that,” Sale says.

The occasion also served as research for a future inquiry, in which Sale envisions a gathering of representatives from across the spectrum of criminal justice systems – from politicians and judges to ex-offenders and their families, to victims and faith-based service providers – coming together over time to build trust and new understandings.

“I often contemplate the capacity of art to help us all grapple with complex social problems that have no easy answers,” Sale says.

Sale’s projects around the criminal justice system are contrasted and connected in interesting ways to the other main current of his work – love.

In 2008, he created a project called “Love Buttons, Love Bites,” in which writer and poet friends helped inscribe their musings about love onto tens of thousands of campaign-style buttons that were ultimately given away at music festivals and museum events. That project recently evolved into "Love for Love," a compilation of thoughts from “voices less heard” in a community, such as people at a homeless shelter, a refugee center and a troubled teens program. With the support of a small collective of slam poets in Chapel Hill, N.C., Sale and his collaborators ran workshops that asked participants to write about love without using the word itself.

When the exhibit traveled to Nashville last fall, Sale set out “to open the language of the project once again.” A table display offered buttons and 4-by-6-inch notecards, each containing a simple orange-red circle on one side and instructions inviting museum-goers to write thoughts and feelings about love on the other. The twist, however, was that each of the circles had been hand-drawn by a man on death row.

“As somebody who decides to participate or not in this project, you have to decide if you’re OK writing your feelings of love in that space that has been designated by somebody with that death sentence,” Sale says.

The task provoked reflection on life, death, love and freedom. For the inmates on death row, it was a welcomed opportunity to connect with people on the outside, people from the communities they used to be a part of.

Before "Love for Love" opened to the public, Sale invited young adults who had aged out of foster care and at-risk youth from a community organization to be the first to participate in this social experiment.

“When I first met with the men at Riverbend, they said that their lives were ‘cashed in’ – that all the decisions were made. They hoped that our work together could support young people in developing an awareness of a broader set of options in life than the men had realized for themselves coming up,” Sale says.

If there’s a way to get people thinking about hope and possibilities for the future, writing about love isn’t a bad place to start.

Written by Allie Nicodemo, Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development