Northhampton, Mass. — A must see exhibition, “Folk Art and Artifacts: America’s Prison Culture,” a thoughtful presentation of almost 20 art objects assembled from the larger “Cellblock Visions” collection and traveling exhibition program curated and managed by art educator and advocate Phyllis Kornfeld, is on view until Thursday, July 30 at Northampton’s Forbes Library, 20 West Street. Artscope’s J. Fatima Martins visited the exhibition yesterday and shares this review with the hope you’ll get to see the show, even on limited notice:
Kornfeld has been working with incarcerated people, as an arts educator, for three decades. She is an expert and leader in the study of “outsider” art as it is expressed specifically within prison culture. She is the author of the landmark book “Cellblock Visions: Prison Art in America” published by Princeton University Press, 1997.
The best way to understand the importance of art-making within the prison system as a form of communication, documentation, and personal expression is to hear from the prisoners themselves.
Artist Arthur Keigney explained his painting, “The Guardians,” a depiction of shower day at Bridgewater State Hospital in 1962 (seen here). This is what he wrote: “Sometimes after the showers we would be weighed naked. The officers sat or stood around in a large group drinking coffee and abused verbally and physically the inmates as they weighted. They carried small dish towel type towels in their waistbands which were used to subdue an inmate by wrapping one around his neck, wrist and ankles which allowed them to beat the shit out of you.”
The exhibition at Forbes Library features paintings, small sculptures, drawings on paper and fabric and a variety of inventive and quality crafted mixed-media constructions, collage and assemblage by talented artists.
Along with large-scale emotive narrative scene paintings by Arthur Keigney, and small drawings and sketches, the objects are organized into four groups: Envelope Art, Paper Weaving, Soap Carving and Handkerchief Art.
Kornfeld selected the objects for their craftsmanship as well as their poignant background stories and messages. She highlights the inventiveness of prisoner-artists in her curatorial statement: “The creative spirit is unstoppable no matter what the circumstances.
Incarcerated men and women triumph over security bans with ingenious resourcefulness — extracting color from shampoo, making paint out of M & Ms, and sculpture out of toilet paper.”
The larger collection and traveling exhibition “Cellblock Visions” consists of approximately 75 objects within the “outsider/folk art” genre. It is housed at A.P.E Ltd. Gallery, 126 Main St., Northampton, and is available to lend to institutions interested in the folk aesthetic and the specific subcategory “prison art.”
A.P. E. Ltd. Gallery is a “working space” and nonprofit (501 C-3) organization founded in 1977 offering support as an “umbrella,” or fiscal agent, to various arts projects, programs and individual artists within the region.
Institutions wanting to exhibit “Cellblock Visions” can connect with Kornfeld via her website: www.cellblockvisions.com.
(“Folk Art and Artifacts: America’s Prison Culture” remains on view through July 30 at Forbes Library, 20 West St., Northampton, Mass. For more information, call (413) 587-1011.)