October 30, 2003

Straight Features Inmate Artwork

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“Chameleon-like/ I shed the skin/ And chose to be unseen/ More importantly/ I remember how it was/ and chose to come back/ As me,” writes a young man on an art piece entitled “Versatility,” on display at the Straight Art Gallery.

The artist, however, certainly has no background in art or poetry. Instead, he is among 52 prisoners held at the MacCormick Center, a maximum secure facility for juveniles approximately 15 minutes from Ithaca in Brooktondale, N.Y.

He and his fellow inmates range between ages 14 to 21, and have committed crimes so egregious or repetitive, such as murder and aggravated robbery, that they have been tried as adults.

Beginning this past spring semester, however, Sarah Agudo ’04 along with Stefan Roesch grad and Harriet Antczak ’04 began making strides to “get them reintegrated, at least psychologically, in the community,” Agudo said.

After working extensively with the young adults, Agudo, Roesch and Antczak arranged to have their work displayed in the Straight until Nov. 1. The artists’ names and faces have been obscured with black colored paper as “they’re still children,” Agudo said.

The plight has been difficult, as “the community is what isolated them in the first place,” Agudo said. “And, of course, [the inmates] can’t give back anything near what they took.”

Agudo feels that the way to reintegrate these young adults back into society is through community service, trying to foster some “sense of responsibility again, a connection to the community in some way.”

If they are not accepted in some capacity, Agudo said, “they have no reason not to keep committing crimes” once they get out of jail.

Last March, Agudo, Roesch and Antczak organized a basketball shoot off, in which the inmates raised approximately $300 for AIDS work in Tompkins County. Though the event “went well enough for us to continue with the idea,” Agudo said, the inmates wanted to do more than just fund raise.

Beginning in April, Agudo, Roesch and Antczak taught art to the MacCormick inmates every Sunday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. They ran the program in conjunction with the Johnson Art Museum for 10 weeks, “until it kind of ran its course and was too exhausting to do anymore,” Agudo said.

“It was important because they’ve never had to do anything like this they’d never think of it on there own. I like the fact that it makes them think about what’s important to them,” Roesch said.

Every other week, fellows from the museum would come and bring different artifacts and mediums to MacCormick. “I don’t think any of the boys had been to a museum before,” Agudo said. “Many had no connection to their African roots” aside from the different displays brought to the prison, she said.

In terms of the art currently on display, the vast majority of the images include pop-cultural icons relating to women, basketball, alcohol, cars and diamonds.

“It was depressing to see such superficial images,” Agudo said. “Artists use art to express their individuality. Instead, they did it to show how conformed to the group they were.”

This was why Agudo was glad that, in the exhibit at the Straight, the artists attached little typed notes interpreting their pieces.

Sarah Burger ’04 found these notes helpful. “I thought it was very interesting because it was so candid, and it was a direct communication that the prisoners had with the viewers. I liked to see the pieces of writing in conjunction with the pieces of art,” she said.

“In the top it seems like everyone has this similar pop culture bias, but when you look deep into it you really see how the prison affects them, even though at first it may not have appeared to have been very unique,” Roesch said.

“It was nice to see uncensored work from them, it seemed like it was really sincere and from the heart. It just seemed very reflective,” Burger said.

“A lot of the pieces reflected a kind of introspection and reflection on the past, talking about pain and struggle. It illustrated some of their escapes from that, how they could find pleasure in money and girls and things like that.”

“It’s hard to justify working with criminals,” Agudo said, who cites that most of the inmates are from five major cities in New York: New York, Rochester, Syracuse, Albany and Buffalo.

The prisoners are separated into four units comprised of 13 inmates each, in order to prevent gang violence, though “all have equal problems,” Agudo said. The racial breakdown of the prisoners is around 90 percent black, then a handful of Hispanics and a minority of whites, according to Agudo.

“I think the most interesting part was getting them to actually do the task. It’s against their intuition to show any sort of feeling or do anything on a personal level, so just working with them to make sure they actually do the artwork was very fulfilling,” Roesch said.

Agudo also found over her time at MacCormick that there was relatively little distinction between ages. “That’s the weird thing about that place. You can’t see the age differences between them — physically or intellectually,” she said, approximating that the inmates are all at around a fourth-grade reading level.

At first, Agudo thought that visiting MacCormick would be a “normal thing.” It was only when she got there that she was “petrified.” She recalls walking through the small facility being unsure of where to go and where everyone was. “There were 52 criminals around me and I didn’t see a single one. It was pretty ominous.”

After the initial fear of immediate danger subsided, however, Agudo felt safe physically. “The most threatening thing is that they challenge you about your morals. They’re not afraid to point out things that others wouldn’t, especially racial differences,” she said.

Any money raised by donations from the art exhibit will go to The Boys and Girls Club of America.

Archived article by Sarah Boxer