The four panelists went by their first names only, Linda, Roy, Michelle and Cindy. They had all been both inside and outside of prison, all were willing to share painful stories of troubled lives, bad decisions and the mountains they had to climb to conquer the depression, sense of failure and lack of hope that accompanied each of them to prison. Three women and one man, each with a different story, but remarkably, each story concluded with determination to succeed, visible accomplishments in education, visible healing and maturation, attained despite years of incarceration.
Two were involved in untimely deaths, one a victim of bad decisions, and only one lucky individual successful in getting a record expunged of youthful crimes. Poverty, domestic abuse, alcohol, violence. And then, education, hope and the beginnings of a focused drive toward vocational goals, including teaching, research, counseling, accounting.
Curators Rebecca Trawick, director of the Wignall Museum, and Misty Burruel, professor of art, have given the community at Chaffey College and beyond an opportunity to experience art and stories inspired by those who have been incarcerated. The exhibit in the Wignall Museum of Contemporary Art, Rancho Cucamonga campus, will run through November 21.
After the panel discussion on Friday, November 6, a small but warm audience broke into smaller groups for conversations that continued as the event moved from the meeting rooms to the Wignall Museum where the art gallery was opened. After a brief intermission for refreshments, the discussions continued against the backdrop of art that often juxtaposed peaceful images of nature with the reality of prison.
In a series of individual portraits, Kristen S. Wilkins paired photographs of incarcerated women paired with images of things they missed or thought about, including beautiful landscapes, pets, holiday memories. A second wall in the gallery is covered with images of products manufactured with prison labor in “Prison Industrial Society,” by photographer Sheila Pinkel. It is a surprisingly large variety of products, including American and California state flags.)
Dominating the gallery is a wall sized painting of a bucolic autumn scene, a flowing creek running through a forest. In some prisons, these large paintings are used as tapestry backdrops for photographic portraits, and where permitted, prisoners paint scenes from memory and the artwork provides a startling escape from the drab institutional walls upon which they hang.
The exhibit is both thought provoking and sobering. So it was all the more impressive to meet the four individuals who were brave enough to share their stories. All credited the educational opportunities they found in prison because they led to a plan of action, visible results, and above all hope for a second chance to succeed “outside.”