Many say that art is therapeutic; that it helps the artist reflect on their thoughts, actions and the world in which they live. But how does art impact someone who is incarcerated? “Inside Art IV,” now on display at Art Space in Greenfield displays photography and poetry by people incarcerated at the Franklin County Jail.
This is the fourth year that Joan O’Beirne, a professor of photography at Greenfield Community College, has taught a group of incarcerated people to work on collaborative artistic projects, while also raising awareness about the approximately 7 million people who are imprisoned in the United States. The Elm Street Think Tank is a sponsor of the program, which features writings and drawings of created by a class of incarcerated people in the summer of 2017.
The exhibit runs until Nov. 24 and is open Monday through Friday from 12 to 2:30 p.m. and re-opens later from 4 to 6 p.m. Upon entering the gallery one can see a plethora of photographs and accompanying poems by the unnamed artists and their untitled works that speak for themselves.
One of the most striking pieces in the exhibit is a black and white negative photo of someone holding his hands side by side to create a diamond shaped hole between them. A barbed wire fence looms tall in the background, blocking out the sky. This piece seems hopeful, though, as if the person depicted in the photograph is looking beyond the concrete and steel enclosure of the prison.
Another photograph is a double negative of tropical waves breaking against sand that’s set against a baby blue sky with rolling mammoth clouds. Set within this visage of tropical paradise is a Latino man with glasses gently smiling. If you look closer, there appears to be prison imagery hidden away that’s hard to make out. This might be what the artist daydreams about from within his confinement; a momentary respite from being immersed in the stark and cold environment of life behind bars.
There’s a series of portrait collage hybrids, one of which includes imagery of a weathered man with gruff facial hair raising his eyebrow mixed with a Boston Bruins logo, a photo of a young girl, and a black bear. “Art, LIfe and Freedom” are the only words contained within this piece. At first, this portrait seemed somewhat menacing, but that might be the artist’s intent. It conveys the idea that when you first look at the piece, all you might see would be this cold looking man, but examining the imagery nearby seems to show that there’s more depth beyond the initial impression. The girl could be this man’s daughter; the Bruins logo for his favorite sports team.
There were two companion photographs that were haunting. The first was of a man banging his fists against an ethereal wall of darkness. He has his back turned away from the viewers and he’s dressed in a uniformed olive green prison shirt. The wall of darkness seems to be a metaphor for depression; it’s formless and sometimes inexpressible to those who suffer from it. The artist conveys a man who’s trapped and raging against that entrapment, to no avail. Another photograph displays this same man with his hands outstretched to a city with fireworks exploding in the scene. This piece, again, seems to represent something beyond reach, but in this case it’s life beyond the prison walls. The excitement of watching fireworks or exploring a city is something impossible for those who are incarcerated to experience, except through their memories or by seeing it on a screen. The fireworks represent freedom, but not in a Fourth of July cliche way.
Inside Art IV does what art is known for — acting as a mirror on society, while also gaining the viewer insight. The photography is detailed and dream-like and gives one appreciation for things in life that are too often taken for granted.
Chris Goudreau can be reached at email@example.com.