Artist Dean Gillispie spent two decades crafting small dioramas – a miniature carved ice cream stand painted in vibrant blues and reds; a clay movie theater conjuring a bygone America; a tiny silver dinette made of soda cans and rivets – out of contraband materials while serving a prison term at the London Correctional Institution in Ohio. His story is not unusual. Art created by prisoners has a long history and a vibrant present, and, as Nicole R. Fleetwood has learned, it has much to teach us about how imprisonment shapes individuals, family relations, public culture, and our society in an age of mass incarceration.
Fleetwood’s Fellowship project grows out of Carceral Aesthetics, a book-length study of contemporary prison art and visual culture in the United States. Engaging directly with many incarcerated artists, she shows that art can be a crucial tool for survival, self-expression, and social life. Through a series of public programs, including a traveling exhibition and artist talks in Philadelphia and New York, she will share the creative practices of some of the millions of Americans behind bars. The project aims to spark discussion of the unique aesthetics that result from limitations on materials and the need to hide the work, and to foster reflection on the meaning of incarceration as seen through the lens of art created in the communal context of prison life.
Fleetwood has considerable experience bridging the humanities and the arts: she co-curated an exhibition of prison art at six sites in New Jersey and played leadership roles in two arts education organizations in San Francisco. She became interested in writing about prison art partly through her personal experience with an incarcerated cousin, who sent her numerous photographic prison portraits. Now she plans to share this under-recognized phenomenon with new audiences beyond the academy.