Community Art Coordinator
November 28, 2016
People for Change
Tell us more about some of your past projects?
I don’t have a very long history of creative work, but I’ve designed and facilitated projects focused on the intersection of art and social justice involving incarcerated people at Toledo Correctional over the last several years. The first was a public art installation on the University of Toledo’s campus. The “Prison Awareness Peace Crane Project” involved incarcerated people and community members folding their reflections on justice into origami paper cranes that were displayed during Prison Awareness Week. The installation represented a collective wish for a peaceful interpretation of justice in our community. I also facilitated a workshop on Art and Social Change inside Toledo Correctional culminating in political posters made by the incarcerated participants. Last year I helped with an afterschool art program at the Frederick Douglass Center.
What current projects are you working on?
In early November, “Passage of Hope” was publicly dedicated at One Government Center. I started the project a year ago to create a public art installation inside Toledo Correctional that would represent the unique experiences and aspirations of that population, and encourage civic dialogue about mass incarceration. It culminated in a 14’ x 6’ mural-sized painting assembled from 21 individual canvasses. The painting was done by ten incarcerated men and community artists Matt Taylor and Yusuf Lateef in collaboration with Art Corner Toledo and the group People for Change. Restrictions on materials allowed in the prison and barriers including the required anonymity of the incarcerated participants shaped the process. The painting puts the viewer at the bottom of a well, looking towards the light at the top. Vines with flowers strive towards the light. The imagery was arrived upon collaboratively through discussions of justice, reflective exercises, and the sharing of spoken word poetry. It represents the experience of incarceration and the aspirations of the participants. It also indicates the possibility for life and beauty to thrive in unexpected places, and the role of community and connectivity in a restorative approach to justice.
The incarcerated participants titled the work “Passage of Hope” referring to hope for the transformation of the criminal justice system, hope for incarcerated people seeking meaning and growth despite their circumstances, and hope for anyone facing conditions that confine, imprison, or isolate. The installation will travel throughout the City of Toledo, moving to the Common Pleas Court in December. Then, I’ll focus on coordinating subsequent installations and designing opportunities for community engagement surrounding the piece!
What advantages does being in Northwest Ohio/Toledo offer your efforts?
Toledo offers creative people room to incubate their ideas, and the strong sense of community here bolsters those efforts. I’m met with a lot of discouraging roadblocks in my efforts to coordinate creative work within a prison- but on the outside, I’ve been overwhelmed with support, interest, and encouragement from artists, community members, and local government. It’s given me confidence that more creative approaches to social justice issues will be embraced.
Tell us about one of your greatest successes.
The fact that “Passage of Hope” made it out of the prison and into the public, honestly. It’s rare that art created inside prisons is allowed to interact with the public, and I worried every day that the bureaucratic Kafkaesque machine would shut the whole project down before the piece made it out.
Tell us who or what gives you inspiration?
Restorative justice programs like The Young New Yorkers and Michigan’s Prison Creative Arts Program. The stories of the individuals I work with inside Toledo Correctional. My neighborhood- I live in the OWE where I run into creative people doing innovative, inspiring things every single day.
Tell us about your background.
I’m a transplant from the Cleveland area. I studied Law and Social Thought at UT where I became interested in the intersection of art and social justice. As a UT student I was lucky to have lots of formative experiences: I researched ants as a lab assistant, I worked/studied on an organic farm, I studied human rights in Brussels, and I took a class inside of a prison- which turned out to be the most transformative experience I’ve ever had. I participated in the National Inside/Out Prison Exchange Program in which college students take a college-level course alongside incarcerated classmates. Reading Plato’s Allegory of the Cave from within a prison made a particularly enduring impression on me. Though the course title was persuasive writing, the class introduced me to restorative justice principles. I became aware of the shocking scale of mass incarceration in America (the U.S. holds roughly 5% of the world’s population, but 25% of its prisoners; we house around 2.2 million people in our prisons and jails) and I came to realize that those we call “criminals” are often themselves casualties of structural, societal inequities. Through group work and dialogue, I learned that my intelligent, creative, incarcerated classmates had a profound desire to make a positive change for themselves, their families, and the world. I stayed involved through the Inside/Out alumni group People for Change, which meets inside Toledo Correctional to work with incarcerated people on creating more opportunities for education inside the prison. Through these experiences and a really influential Arts Diplomacy course, I’ve adopted some principles that govern my work on creative justice projects: I believe that community art should involve participation from the population represented; that through creative expression, disenfranchised people can be the voice of change; and that the dialogic process employed in collaborative, creative work models the potential for the transformation of the justice system. I developed the “Passage of Hope” project based on these beliefs.
By day, I work at UT. By night, I coordinate community art projects in the prison! I don’t have an extensive background in organizing community art, but I’m grateful that I’m learning how to do it in Toledo.
Do you have a motto or favorite quote you try to live by?
From a prison reform conference: When an uncomfortable reality is illuminated, eyes take time to adjust. It's our job to keep the light on.
Favorite place for local culture?
TMA and Uptown establishments, certainly. But the Toledo Farmers Market is where I discovered how much Toledo had to offer, and it’s where I first felt a sense of community. I think it’s a microcosm of Toledo spirit and culture.
Toledo’s “best kept secret” is . . .
Szechwan spicy fish with pickles at WeiWei on Reynolds Road. It really is a secret- you have to order it off of the secret Chinese menu. Pickled vegetables swim around with white fish in a red chili broth; it’s simultaneously briny, sour, oily, spicy, and nourishing. It’s an exciting experience for the mouth and one of my favorite dishes in all of Toledo.
My favorite place to chill locally is …
Black Kite or The Attic.
My favorite natural space in the Toledo area is . . .
I feel sentimental about the Floodplains trail at Wildwood. I’ve done a lot of good thinking there accompanied by my dog, Lola. I’m also really thrilled about the new Middlegrounds Metropark.
When I’m not working hard, I can always be found …
Rollerblading while singing off-key, loudly, on the University Parks Trail, cycling, walking my dog, or sharing meals with friends.
If you could change anything about the current landscape for creative, progressive people . . .
I’d like to see creative work further interface with community groups, policy makers, and public officials, because creatives have the capability to change hearts and minds and influence public opinion.
Any exciting collaborations (past or present) you would like to tell us about?
I’ll continue to work with Matt Taylor, Yusuf Lateef, and Art Corner Toledo on installations of “Passage of Hope” throughout Toledo, and I have a few ideas for future community justice projects in the pipeline!
Name one person (living or deceased) who you would love to collaborate with.
Favianna Rodriguez. Her work and writing motivated my pursuit of art as cultural strategy. She articulated a concept that piqued my interest as an undergraduate student- that by working on the imagination, socially-engaged art can influence ideas, shape and re-shape societal narratives, and create the cultural undercurrents necessary for political change.
Name a CD, book or website you can’t live without.
How about a podcast? I’d be really sad without the New Yorker Fiction Podcast.
3 words that best describe me or my work are . . .
space for dialogue
Give us 5 Desert Island Album picks.
Bon Iver – For Emma, Forever Ago
Carol King – Tapestry
Alabama Shakes – Sound & Color
Sufjan Stevens – Michigan
Leonard Cohen – The Future
My biggest vice is . . .
I’d like to see more ________ in Toledo.
Late night hours at our independent coffee shops.
What’s the last dream you recall having?
It was this recurring dream I have where I’m in Flanders, cycling along the Scheldt River. The sun warms my back and the air is sweet, pastoral. A brown cow grazes in a field of wildflowers. Dream cow speaks to me, but I don’t speak Dutch and pedal on blithely. I listen to the quiet river sounds and imbued with happiness, I shut my eyes while pedaling effortlessly forward... When I open them, my front tire’s at the edge of a peninsular cliff.
The last lyric that moved me was . . .
All of Leonard Cohen’s last album.
One movie character I identify with is . . .
Can it be a TV character? Liz Lemon.
The best gift I’ve ever received was . . .
a digital subscription to The New Yorker.
My most inspiring moment was/is . . .
I’m inspired every time I go into Toledo Correctional and work with individuals who, despite having the odds stacked against them, continue to strive for education, growth, and meaning. We can read about the U.S. penal system’s fallibility, we can read the statistics about its disproportionate impact on poor people and people of color. But meeting the human faces represented by those statistics continually inspires me to work towards restoring some of the brokenness in this system, by working with those directly implicated in the system. When I go into the prison, the residents’ potential and profound desire for growth and change is so evident. I leave every time thinking, “we can do better than this”. The U.S. can do justice better and more meaningfully for all people.
I want my last meal to be _______________.
Family dinner prepared by Emily Allred : )
Photo Credit: Robin CharneyBack to All Creative Natives