An escape through art: creativity in prison

Incarcerate artists showcase artwork in "Chained Voices" exhibit in Colorado

We go to Colorado Newsline for this weeks long read by Moe Clark, read the whole article “A push to change Colorado’s prison culture and perceptions — one art piece at a time.” We include key excerpts below to convince you it’s worth your time!

Creating hope

I’ve been doing art since I can remember,” 42-year-old Martinez said. “I remember picking up a pencil and finding paper when I was 3, 4 years old, and just drawing anything and everything I could find.”

Though he’s created art throughout his life, he never thought he would have the opportunity to share it with the world. After being convicted of a crime at age 17, he spent 25 years in state prison. He was recently released through a program for people who were convicted as juveniles. 

On Aug. 20, he got an opportunity he never expected: to see his peers’ artwork on display during the “Chained Voices” showcase at the University of Denver. The showcase is part of a broader partnership between DU and the Colorado Department of Corrections to change prison culture and empower incarcerated people to find meaning, and purpose, through art.

For Martinez, art has always been a way for him to create something that could never be taken away. 

“I thought I’d never get out. So I always thought to myself, well, if in 50, 60 years after I’m gone, somebody sees (my art), well, I’m still going. I’m still out there in the world somewhere, somehow,” said Martinez, who became a team leader for the DU Prison Arts Initiative program while he was incarcerated at the Four Mile Correctional Facility, a state prison located in Cañon City. 


Dean Williams, director of the Department of Corrections, said the art showcase represents one aspect of what he calls “normalization.” Since assuming his role in 2019, Williams has been on a mission to make Colorado prisons less punitive and more rehabilitative. 

“The reality is, we have such a long ways to go,” he said, as he sat in the middle of the art gallery. “Sometimes it seems like a formidable task to say that prisons can be different, that they can be more humane, safer for inmates, safer for staff, and be more purpose-driven.”

But he said efforts like DU Prison Arts Initiative are helping to push the status quo.

“I really view it as my job to create spaces where work is being made, whether that’s theater storytelling, fine arts, radio/audio work, whatever it is, that reminds us of who’s really inside,” said Ashley Hamilton, co-founder and executive director of the DU Prison Arts Initiative. “That folks inside are full humans, and are really complicated, just like us.”

Over the last few weeks, Hamilton, who is an assistant professor of theater at DU, has been teaching a workshop alongside six incarcerated men from Sterling Correctional Facility, a state prison in northeast Colorado. The workshops focus on restorative and transformative justice, using art as the vehicle.

Bottom line

Sherman said that while he was incarcerated, he always dreamed of seeing his art hanging on someone’s wall. He shared a story of a time when his sister, who has since passed away, had walked into a neighbor’s home and recognized the art displayed on the mantle. 

“And so later on, she leaves, and the guy comes running out to her, and he was like, ‘Hey, that artwork that you seen? That was done by somebody in the joint. But don’t tell my wife because I told her I did it,’’’ Sherman said with a laugh, recalling the conversation he had with his sister. 

“So she asked, you know, who was the guy that did it?” Sherman recalled. “Cause she recognized my work. And he said, ‘John Sherman.’ And she said, ‘That’s my brother!’”

Sherman said he was recently contacted by someone on Facebook who was trying to figure out who had drawn a picture of her mother.

“She sent me an image of that picture on Facebook, and I was that guy,” he said with a smile. “So, you know, that made me really, really happy to be able to get out and see my work.”

Artwork from the “Chained Voices” exhibit can be purchased online on DU’s website.

Read the whole article here.

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