‘Escaping Time’ Showcases Talents of Incarcerated Artists
Giving voice to the voiceless and visioning the invisible
Incarceration, by design, seeks to starve a most basic human need: our ability to connect with one another. Escaping Time: Art from U.S. Prisons, an exhibition of nearly 200 works created within prison walls across the country, fights to bridge that void of isolation.
Since its inception in 2015, the show has been connecting artists behind bars with audiences on the outside. But, the exhibition’s mission is not solely rooted in aesthetics. With art as its means, Escaping Time and the non-profit behind it of the same name crave something larger. It aims to demystify those that are locked up, to advocate on their behalf, and to share knowledge on America’s addiction to incarceration. As Mark Thivierge, the project’s director makes clear: ”We’re not neutral on this.”
Now, there is no way to untangle the paintings, sculptors, graff pieces, drawings and paños in the exhibition on view this summer on Governors Island from the setting in which they were created. But, it would be shortsighted to limit them as such. The skill and technique evident in the works could easily stand toe-to-toe with many of what hangs on the walls of commercial galleries.
Not to be downplayed, these artists do not have a full scope of resources at their disposal. They are often forced to truly think “outside the box” because of their limited access to materials. The desire to express oneself stirs so strongly that a bed sheet becomes an improvised canvas, Kool-Aid or commissary coffee grinds the colors on a palette.
MASS APPEAL sat down with Jay Darden, curator and a formerly incarcerated artist featured in the show—and of the volunteers that are the beating heart of Escaping Time—to learn more.
How did you come to be involved with the project as an artist and as a curator?
Jay Darden: As an artist, it started with this individual named Isaac Scott. He’s formerly incarcerated as well and he had something called The Confined Arts. The Confined Arts was approached by Mark Thivierge [the director of] Escaping Time to see if he knew of any artists because one of the problems with getting art from prison is that they’re all locked up. I was one of the few people who was free and still had artwork from prison and was open to bringing some artwork to Governors Island.
So, I started off last summer as just a guy bringing some art. It was that simple. They wanted to see some art. I’ve got some art. Escaping Time is a small organization. When I got there, they were looking to see if there was anyone willing to volunteer. I said, “You know I work Sunday through Thursday, but I have Fridays and Saturdays off.” So, first I volunteered to be here on Friday because I thought it was important to, not just have artwork from prisoners, but to actually have someone who had done time to talk with the visitors. It wasn’t just talking about arts. People had questions about prison conditions and is it really like what they hear on TV, or see on TV. And sometimes they just wanted to talk politics, or what’s it like once you’re not incarcerated. I can’t speak for all prisoners. I can only speak for my own experience, but I thought there was some value in physically being here.
Advocacy and education are as intrinsic to the project as the art being shown.
Escaping Time is not just for art’s sake. It’s looking at the bigger picture of what Escaping Time could grow into. ‘Cause for me, it does go beyond art. In the future, Escaping Time could be able to keep younger individuals from every being touch by the criminal justice system. That’s the true “escaping time” right there.
Why is it imperative for you to ensure that those still inside aren’t forgotten?
You see in society in a small way there’s an attempt to change the narrative of this faceless, violent individual when you think of a prisoner. And it’s important to have the artwork there so you can kind of humanize them as an individual. And then greater than that, people always wonder when they come through the exhibition, how do these guys learn how to do this? And for the most part, they were self taught. I know I was. It then leads into the whole discussion about education and what’s available in prison. What is available to keep people from going back to prison? The one thing I know from my own experience is that education is not a priority in prison. I was incarcerated with an individual who was 45 years old and illiterate. He had hidden it from his wife their entire marriage. He would open newspapers and just contextualize what the news story was based on the photographs, but it wasn’t until he was in prison where he let out the fact that he couldn’t read or write. And the prison only offered a GED program. That’s no good if you can’t read or write. They had an adult basic education program that was, I can’t even say taught by a civilian because the civilian was just there to make sure that everyone stays in their seat. So, there’s really no effort to provide people a foundation so that when they leave prison they’ve got something.
It’s important for me to get involved because part of the discussion that I can have with people who come through, whether they buy art or not, is just getting them to be aware that at some point, the majority of the people incarcerated will be free again. And even if you don’t know someone who has been incarcerated, you should have an interest in making sure that there are some programs in prison that will prepare these people to re-enter society.
Was art in a sense your oxygen while inside?
I wouldn’t say it was my oxygen. I mean art for me, I already had the high school diploma so, for me to do my time and learn something, it was either go to the library and get some books on business or whatever, and read those – and there’s a finite number of those books – or learn Spanish, which I learned from the Spanish guys who were incarcerated. Then there was art. And I was able to get art supplies. So, that was it. I taught myself how to paint.
There’s a certain ingenuity and resourcefulness that goes into creating behind the wall. What are of some of the obstacles for an artist regarding materials?
In terms of resources, I would be considered one of the lucky ones because I was able to have canvas panels. I was actually able to order paint and brushes too. I was able to have actual art supplies. The thing is in prisons, sometimes they allow you to order things, sometimes they won’t. For me, there was only really one window of opportunity to order anything. They considered it part of an arts and crafts program. Then they shut it down. The program was being reevaluated. They had to discuss whether brushes should be more than six inches in length, whether they were considered weapons. So, I was very lucky to have ordered my supplies when I did. Then you just kind of stretch them out over time. Or, if you’re lucky, someone else is going home and they leave you their art supplies.
In the show, we have a young man [Jairo Pastoressa] who’s a graffiti artist [who was held at Rikers Island for 6 years without ever going to trial]. He was relegated to using Kool Aid, coffee grounds, toothpaste as adhesive, as glue. That’s where you really see the desire to express one’s self. You’ll see what lengths someone is willing to go to just get it out.
In your own work featured in Escaping Time and in some of the other artists that have several pieces on view, there appears a willingness and a certain freedom to explore different techniques.
Right. That’s the thing. When you don’t have physical freedom, you try to find it wherever you can. And part of that is, “I’m going to paint a portrait” or “I’m going to paint a landscape” or I’m going to try this style”. And that’s one piece of it for me personally. The other piece was that when you look at my work, each one was a different lesson I was trying to teach myself.
There’s a painting included I did of a motorcycle. The only thing I cared about in that whole painting was whether I could get the chrome to look like chrome. Because you think about metal and you’re like, “Okay, well how do I paint metal.” The old me would have said, “Well, you just need some silver paint and you’re okay.” But then you start learning that there’s the whites and the grays in there and there’s the hints of blue and the reflections of whatever is opposite. So, each one was its own lesson. The Jay-Z painting was an exercise not in just black and white, but in learning how to do folds. Each one was its own lesson. Maybe one day, I’ll settle into a style, but even right now I’m still teaching myself different things.
Going back to talking about expression. One thing that stays in my head is what other people say when they come through the exhibition and it’s interesting to see what people will gravitate towards because we have some pieces where people are really expressing straight up: I’m incarcerated. I hate it. It’s terrible. That’s even like the message written on the actual painting. Then we have other people that if you took the work out of the Escaping Time exhibition and you put it in some other gallery, it would just be seen as, well that’s just a nice piece. A nice portrait, whatever. Some people would come through and question, “Why is it that you painted portraits and what not, while other people were painting, they were expressing pain or something like that?” And I tell them the reason I painted the things I painted was not just to teach myself a lesson, but also I had no desire to reflect my surroundings at all. So, for me, part of the escape was being able to paint the things that were not around me.
How do you grow relationships with artists that are incarcerated? How do you find them? How do they find you?
We have connections to other people who have connections to other people. So, there’s a small network operating where we will all put one another on. Like, “Have you seen this guy’s stuff?” So, we’ll open up the communication and there’s a huge level of trust involved. The artists are sending their stuff out to us and trusting that we’ll take care of it. That we’ll curate it properly and even that we’ll discuss it the way they would want to with visitors.
And it’s tricky, ’cause I know what it’s like with trust and I think for me reaching out to them and them knowing that I’ve been incarcerated, and they see what I’m trying to do, they feel a little bit more comfortable. A little bit more confident.
What have been some of the artists’ reactions? Are you updating them with how their work is being received?
If the piece is purchased, they love it. But they love it equally just if I send them a letter saying here’s a comment that someone gave about your piece. There’s a guy whose art we have here. He’s been incarcerated since 1980 and he’s probably never going to get out. He’s sent all his stuff to his mom and his mom contacted me. So, we’re selling his work and it’s important not just for me, for him, but for his mom. Because were it not for this exhibition, the only person who would see his work would be his mom. And he does beautiful work that other people should see.
What does the future look like for Escaping Time?
I’d like it to branch out from art. I mean Escaping Time: Art from U.S. Prisons is our beginning. But in the end, Escaping Time is making sure that people never get involved with the criminal justice system. So, if we can get to a point where we’ve grown enough so that we can have workshops or if we can do job training. Anything to give people the skills they need so that they can be productive in society and avoid doing anything that would get them involved in the criminal justice system. I mean that’s long term. Who knows how many years it could take. I look at other organizations like The Fortune Society and Osborne Association and even Just Leadership USA. They’re able to do so many different things. Ultimately, I’d love to see Escaping Time grow into an organization that can offer a variety of resources and opportunities that keep people from being incarcerated. Whether it’s education, job training or it’s an actual art program taking us back to our beginnings.