When most of us think of prison inmates, we think of angry criminals getting exactly what they deserve. We are least likely to think of the soft side of these men and women who are incarcerated for crimes that in our minds they obviously committed. The public seldom feels compassion for these people who have made grave mistakes, and typically, their lives and goals hold no interest for society at large.
A new exhibit "Inside Out" at Make.Shift Project, an arts nonprofit in Bellingham, Washington, challenges public opinion by giving spectators a glimpse into the thoughts and personal lives of offenders in the Whatcom County Jail system. The jail is home to 370 inmates, and all were invited to create original art using the limited materials they had available to them and to take park in a showing of their work. The participants were also asked to price their work for possible sale.
Interestingly, curators at Make.Shift Project did not receive any art from female offenders. They did, however, receive a great deal of work from male inmates, with pieces ranging from dark to touching. Some of the artists were more prolific than others and sent in a dozen or so works, while others provided just one. Regardless, 90% of what was received was hung in the exhibition.
Organizers are hopeful that "Inside Out" will change public perceptions of inmates. They want people to leave the gallery understanding that many of these offenders have undiscovered talents, and since the offenders are also community members who are friends, family and neighbors, the show gives them a way to indirectly interact with the community at large.
Another takeaway from the eye-opening exhibit is the knowledge that art programs and recreation programs are nonexistent in Washington State prisons because of the lack of funding for such projects and across the board budget cuts. Make.Shift Project staff are encouraging people to write the state government to petition them to provide funding for potential programs that could tap offender creativity and help to rehabilitate them.
On April 6, I had the opportunity to interview Make.Shift Project Director Cat Sieh and Whatcom County Jail Chief Wendy Jones about "Inside Out," which runs through May. Watch my interview video HERE.