A burst of autumn sunshine lights up the hallway of the University of Washington Law School. Students mingle at tables outside, while others relax indoors between classes. The hallway’s monotonous white walls are interrupted by paintings of distinct styles and subjects, a recent project curated by UW law students Jason Spencer, Julia Davis and Zachary Finn.
The exhibition, titled “Incarcerated Bodies, Free Spirits,” features 15 thought-provoking pieces by Johnnie Wiggins, Gilberto Rivera and Mark Loughney, all of whom have been or are currently incarcerated.
Among the most striking tracks are ‘Mellifluous’, ‘This is America’ and ‘General Pop’, which convey all the emotions of struggling with life’s harsh realities and inspire a deep sense of compassion and empathy. Each piece sits next to a QR code that viewers can scan to hear the artist talk about the inspiration behind the painting. The project aims to highlight the humanist prism of incarcerated people and the struggles they experience.
“It was one of the first things that shocked me [when working with incarcerated people] …the level of intelligence and skill that’s just trapped there because of certain mistakes growing up,” said law school sophomore Jason Spencer. “I saw the interest of the students. I wanted to offer them another avenue [to social justice issues] it was less academic and more interactive.
There are approximately two million people incarcerated in the United States, many of whom have committed petty crimes. High incarceration rates lead to overcrowded jails and prisons, which often results in inhumane treatment of those incarcerated and lack of access to mental health care. Prison also has little effect on a person’s tendency to relapse into crime – one in four incarcerated people will go back to prison after release, according to the Prison Policy Initiative.
“Not only do we put them in jail, but we make it so difficult for them to contribute to society,” Spencer said. “There are very few opportunities to work and contribute something to society.”
This is what this exhibition aims to change.
Johnnie Wiggins, who is currently incarcerated in Monroe, WA, paints weekly, his works lining the walls of his cell and resting on spare furniture. He draws most of his inspiration from the challenges that black people have faced throughout history. He’s a self-taught artist, and he only started painting about four or five years ago, after his incarceration. He hopes to send all the money he earns from his art to the daughter of the victim of his crime.
“You have a percentage of [incarcerated] people who are remorseful, who want to change, who want to do something positive,” Wiggins said in a phone interview.
Wiggins continually expresses the value his art has for him. He describes it as a blessing, an intimate feeling and something that allows him to express his emotions.
“It’s my way of saying how sorry I am, how remorseful I am, but not only that, but how happy I am,” Wiggins said.
Mark Loughney and Gilberto Rivera, the other two artists featured in the law school exhibit, also found the art deeply meaningful during their time in prison.
Loughney was released earlier this year and currently lives in Philadelphia. Her art focuses on the experiences of incarcerated people. During his 10 years in prison, he drew 850 portraits of other prisoners.
Rivera came out in 2013 and lives in New York. He was always interested in art, but he only became serious about it after his incarceration. While incarcerated he tried many different mediums, all of which combined to form his own unique style. His art focuses on the American experience and draws on his experiences as a native Puerto Rican and as an formerly incarcerated.
Spencer hopes that all students who visit the exhibit reflect on the pieces there and “think about the humanity that is still behind bars and the potential that really is behind it.”
The exhibit was funded by the Student Bar Association, with additional support from Marking Time, Justice Arts Coalition and Huskies for Opportunities in Prison Education.
If interested, people can see more artwork from Wiggins at JW Life Expressions on Facebook, and artwork from Rivera and Loughney can be found on Instagram. The exhibits are all available for purchase. The exhibition will be taken down at the end of term on December 16, so be sure to visit before the winter break.
Contact contributing writer Grace Maher at [email protected] Twitter: @gmaher22.
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