March 2, 2011

Primitive Means, Sophisticated Results

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Between the hours of 8 and 10 on Monday night a combination of Cornell students, Ithaca students and local Ithacans gathered in the Big Red Barn to appreciate an improbable exhibition of prisoner artwork. “Prison Express” a program organized by Durland Alternatives Library (DAL) in Anabel Taylor Hall, displayed the best works that it has received throughout the course of its outreach program to prisoners around the country. The story of Prison Express began when Gary Fine, the assistant director of the DAL, received a letter from a prisoner named Danny Harris, asking if the library could extend its services to Harris’s prison. Fine respectfully declined, and later received a surprising response from Harris thanking him for his consideration. The letter explained that even a respectful rejection made Harris feel like a human, rather than a number in the judicial system. Fine was so moved by the letter that he began sending book packages to Harris, and eventually to other prisons around the country. Several hundred incarcerated individuals now benefit from Fine’s outreach efforts each year. In addition to sending out free books, Prisoner Express also holds a book club, and encourages prisoners to write poetry, create art and write essays. The idea for an art show began when prisoners began sending back drawings and paintings to Fine’s office in exchange for the book packages. “The art show is one aspect of our program that the prisoners create, they just send us the art,” said Fine. The work on display in the Big Red Barn was both visually and conceptually compelling. It consisted mainly of black and white sketches, and where color did appear, it came from a variety of unusual sources, including the pigment from M&Ms. The lack of sophisticated resources forces the prisoners to adopt alternative ways of creating art.Jason Forbes, a prisoner who produced paintings using paint and acrylic varnish on canvas, took first place in the competition. His paintings look like the products of someone with artistic training, although his biography states that he is self-taught. He received all materials from an online catalogue. He claims that each piece is “the exhumed from sepulcher,” and invites viewers to respond to his work.David Gordon, a prisoner in Texas originally from Oregon, created a particularly touching pop-up book entitled “Parenting in a box,.” The book tells of a child who finds a box full of keepsakes compiled by his parents that represent his upbringing. The pieces represent maturity, respect, responsibility, good consciousness, imagination, competition, virtue and spirituality. The work illustrates a dimension of Gordon that is usually hidden from the public by prison walls. The excitement of the viewers in the barn was pervasive. As Sharinne Sukhnanand ’05 stated, “I love doing events that are community events, really positive. A lot of stereotypes around prisons are really negative. This is the rehabilitation part.” The crowd was compassionate, and excited to see the possibility of rehabilitation in some of our countries most sorry corners.“These guys are making this art with very limited supplies. They are so open to sharing their creativity,” said Adina Rubin-Budick ’13, a co-editor of Writers Block,  a literary publication devoted to showcasing the creative work of students in the Cornell Prison Education Program. The art show definitely allows the prisoners a chance for redefinition.One of the most important aspects of the event to the attendee’s was its ability to expand the horizons of all involved. Fernanda Negrete grad, an art fellow at the Big Red Barn co-sponsored the event. “Cornell, particularly graduate student center is very privileged to host this event. Bringing Cornellians into contact with a dimension of humanity not otherwise available gives us an opportunity to contribute to their creative work.”Prisoner Express, along with Writers Bloc and the Cornell Prison Education Program are all actively improving the quality of life for America’s incarcerated, but are in constant need of funding. Gary Fine even finds himself rejecting those he would desperately like to help because aren’t just aren’t enough books to meet the demand of the prisoners who request them. “I love that they’re happy, but I don’t have the resources to serve them and there are always ways for Cornell students to help.”

Original Author: Natasha Bunzl