Art as Freedom, Art as Healing
Olivia Hochstadt ’21 curates exhibition of artwork made by prisoners in Maine
When Chris looks out his window, he sees a concrete wall. When he paints, however, he envisions a different scene. On his canvas, bright trees intermingle with their own shadows. Behind them, darkening skies vignette traces of pale sunlight illuminating the painting’s center.
Chris is incarcerated in Maine State Prison. “During the time that he’s been living in there, he has no view,” said Olivia Hochstadt ’21. “When he draws, he tries to draw what he imagines is beyond the wall.”
This past summer, Hochstadt landed an internship with the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition (MPAC), a nonprofit run by system-impacted individuals aimed at humanizing the state’s carceral system.
Her task: organize an art exhibition featuring works made by prisoners in Maine.
Her hope: show the public that art transforms lives of incarcerated people by allowing them to have a voice, providing a way to heal from past and current trauma, and advancing humanistic prison reform on a broader scale.
The exhibition, Freedom and Captivity: Maine Voices Behind Prison Walls, was on view in Portland last fall. The exhibition was part of the larger Freedom & Captivity Initiative—a public humanities program coordinated by Catherine Besteman, Colby’s Francis F. Bartlett and Ruth K. Bartlett Professor of Anthropology. Through its cross-disciplinary, multimedia approach, the initiative aims to raise critical awareness of the institutional issues that drive mass incarceration throughout the state of Maine.
Hochstadt, a Spanish and art history double major at Colby, learned curatorial skills both through her coursework, which challenged her to come up with exhibition proposals, and by taking on internships at art museums and galleries. “That is where I learned that I wanted to work directly with artists in representing their work,” Hochstadt said.
Last summer, her hope was realized. Not only was she tasked with organizing the show, but she also went to Maine State Prison weekly to help prisoners develop their artwork and ideas.
“I went in really not knowing what to expect,” Hochstadt recounted. “I felt very privileged that I was being let into a space that is so separated and so hidden from the wider community for the purpose of making art.”
Maine State Prison, a men’s-only institution, is the state’s largest incarceration facility. Hochstadt, along with her colleague and assistant director of MPAC Jan Collins, worked in the Education and Programming building. Here, in a limited art space with a handful of basic art materials, a group of men sat each week, tasked with creating pieces for the exhibition.
Some of the men had been making art for years. Others had never tried before the show or only began while incarcerated. Hochstadt worked with each artist, talking through ideas, reviewing drafts and finished works, and discussing the personal importance of each piece with the artist who created it.
“Through that process,” she recalled, “it became a much larger experience of getting to know these guys as people, and that was really powerful. Their artwork opened a total door into their lives, their passions, their backstory.” Now, she said, she considers many of the residents as friends.
Hochstadt emphasized that the show itself evolved to meet the creative impulses and motifs of the artists, rather than the other way around. “The ‘freedom and captivity’ theme was really their freedom of expression, and we were creating a space for people living in captivity to express themselves,” she said. Though visually poignant, chains and fences did not dominate the show. In fact, many of the works depicted prisoners’ homes and loved ones, as well as more abstract representations of imagined scenes, religions, and emotions.
Though the show, which received tremendous acclaim and national news coverage, has come to a close, Hochstadt hopes it will have a continued impact on the lives of incarcerated people in Maine as well as on the systems that imprison them.
“This show honestly has changed my personal trajectory in the art world,” said Hochstadt, who has embarked on Colby’s inaugural three-month Global Fellowship. Upon her return to the U.S., she said, “I want to keep this art program going.”
Doing so will require continued support from the Department of Corrections, cultural institutions in Maine, as well as from the public at large. Hochstadt expressed the need for more art-making spaces and sufficient materials in prisons; currently, a single art room with just six seats exists in the 700-person Maine State facility. Furthermore, within their cells, residents are only permitted three-inch colored pencils (which, when you’re drawing frequently, Hochstadt noted, diminish pretty quickly). Hochstadt believes that exhibitions like Freedom and Captivity will motivate prisons to adopt art programs as a key rehabilitative method, inspire people to donate supplies, and encourage art teachers to step in and provide solid, personalized instruction to resident artists.
“I hope that people understand that the beauty that is produced in this art is an amazing facet of a system that is very destructive,” she said. “And I hope that people can understand that this art is a much more effective way of dealing with peoples’ harm and actions than enforcing a traumatic system upon them.”
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