Transcending Prison Walls

Gordon Jewish Community Center | July 15–30

July 2016

by Peter Chawaga

While metal and concrete keep those deemed unfit for society separated from it, creative expression still serves as an avenue for prisoners to connect, to express, to reach for the things that imprisonment denies them.

Inside and Out: Collaborations with Unit 2, an exhibition of several types of art, presents the work of local inmates and collaborators to demonstrate that the creative spirit refuses to be shackled. Organized by Robin Paris and Tom Williams, professors from Watkins College of Art, Design & Film, and Barbara Yontz of St Thomas Aquinas University, Sparkhill, NY, the exhibit will be hosted in Nashville’s Gordon Jewish Community Center in July.

Collaboration began in the summer of 2013 when Paris and Williams were invited by a Vanderbilt University professor to take over a summer course for prisoners at the Riverbend Maximum Security Institution. They met with volunteer students and faculty to study the country’s legal system, mass incarceration, and the injustices that some prisoners face, then made weekly visits to inmates in Unit Two, a death row.

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Akil Jahi, Proposal for a Monument, 2015

In two initial projects prisoners would add their own creative touches to images brought in by the students or give instruction for them to capture the things they were no longer free to enjoy.

In one piece to be exhibited, the message “It has been 25 years Since I have Seen the Stars in the open Sky!” has been floated in ghostly cursive across a photograph of twilight descending behind the tree line. In another, 20-foot-long roses were constructed at a prisoner’s request and photographed in places he could never visit.

“I think creating art allows prisoners an opportunity to grapple with their experiences,” said Williams, an assistant professor in art history. “It allows them to reach out to people beyond those walls of prison and to get them to better understand how they could end up on death row.”

While the inmates, many of whom had already taken up formal art lessons while incarcerated, benefited from the creative outlet, the students who participated in the program discovered new horizons as well.

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Abu Ali Abdur’Rahman, Landscape, 2015, Mixed media

“There was this reaching across the walls of prison to have an understanding about what it means to be on death row,” explained Paris, an associate professor and chair of photography. “It was a really good experience for our students. We watched it change their lives, change how they thought about things.”

Williams recalled one student whose own history as a victim of violent crime made her hesitant to participate in the program. She decided to attend a workshop at Riverbend and speak openly about her past. To her surprise, the prisoners sympathized all too well, explaining that they had been the victims of violent crimes too.

“When people visit the exhibitions and they see the work and they hear the stories about who these people are and what this means, it changes their lives and their stereotypes about who might be in prison and why,” said Paris.

“It has been 25 years Since I have Seen the Stars in the open Sky!”

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Dennis Suttles, Flowers from Death Row I: The Tennessee Capitol, 2015, Pigment print

In September, the work created during the initial summer course was exhibited at COOP Gallery in the Arcade. “That first show was successful,” said Williams, who noted that they were given the chance to exhibit because of a gap in the gallery’s schedule. “It received a good amount of attention.”

The original exhibition was followed by five others featuring continued collaboration between volunteers and Riverbend prisoners: a diorama of the prison system, self-designed memorials, personal photographs, and more. Most recently the works were showcased during a six-week stay at New York’s apexart gallery in a show called Life After Death and Elsewhere, beating out hundreds of other submissions for the space.

The Gordon Jewish Community Center will host a compilation of previously exhibited collaborations, art made exclusively by prisoners, as well as pieces from visual artist and professor Barbara Yontz, who has also worked with inmates at Riverbend.

“I found the work to be so profound and to shed light on this dark part of our society,” explained Carrie Mills, curator of the Community Center’s art gallery. “I like the idea of art creating conversation, and I think this is a way to bring that conversation into place here.”


Declicho Besh (“Ironhawk”), Tree (realized in collaboration with artist Sophia Stevenson), 2015, Clay and painted feathers (depicted with Stone for Chief, 2015, clay)

Face to face interaction is, of course, what penitentiaries have been erected to prevent. But understanding—or at least a willingness to experience an inmate’s point of view—through creative expression can transcend prison walls, societal injustices, even past transgressions. Visitors to Inside and Out have the chance to see prisoners as Paris, Williams, and volunteers in the program came to: as human beings with the need to reconcile and communicate their circumstances with the same passion that drives any artist.

“The feeling that I got after knowing them for a while is that these men have become sort of realized men,” said Paris. “There’s an understanding and a deepness in them that you don’t always see in people on the outside.”

It is the organizers’ hope that by presenting this insight on prisoners and what they’re capable of creating in collaboration with fellow artists, they can affect a lasting change in how we perceive the jailed.

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Harold Wayne Nichols, A World Without Prisons, 2015; Perspective, 2015; Random Choices, 2015; Viewpoint, 2015

“My hope for this show is that it creates a dialogue across prison walls,” said Paris. “That it brings to these communities a little understanding, whether it’s a reconciliation or some kind of realization that it’s not just about punishment. Something else bigger happens here.”

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Gary Cone, Reading Has Been My Way to Exit, 2015, Mixed media

Inside and Out: Collaborations with Unit 2 will be on display at the Gordon Jewish Community Center, 801 Percy Warner Boulevard, between July 15 and July 30. For more information, visit

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