Stories in Paper: An Exhibition of Works by Incarcerated Artists

“Things are apart and you bring them together for strength”

-Workshop artist, September 2019

On January 23, 2020, Art X Social Justice opened their inaugural exhibition Stories in Paper on the eighth and ninth floors of Schermerhorn Hall. The artworks were made by incarcerated artists in a series of six workshops conducted within New York State’s prison system in fall 2019. Laura Betancur, Expressive Arts Therapist and El Museo del Barrio educator, led the workshops with the assistance of graduate students from the Department of Art History and Archaeology. Stories in Paper was made possible through a collaboration with the Justice-in-Education Initiative at the Heyman Center.

Through experimental textures, forms, and colors, the workshop participants created an aesthetic world radically different to the one that otherwise dominates their everyday lives. This is the world of the United States carceral state, which as of 2016 controls about 6.6 million people (or about 1 in every 38 persons in the United States) through incarceration, probation, or parole. As is well recognized today, this system exercises control predominantly over people of color, people living in poverty, and immigrants.

Although unfamiliar to most art historians and museum workers, the aesthetic infrastructure that underpins the carceral state is all too familiar to incarcerated people and their families. It comprises the cold concrete architectures of prison cells, plastic chairs of visitor areas and police stations, worn letters from loved ones and government forms, as well as less visible yet ever present networks of bureaucracy and surveillance.

The artworks produced in the workshops, in ways both explicit and implicit, testify to these carceral conditions. Yet more than this, they speak of practices of freedom and self-care, and trace alternative networks to the ones that underpin the carceral state: new webs of community among incarcerated people, their families, artists, and the viewers of this exhibition.

The exhibition will be open through December, 2020.

Margaret Tilley, “Inaugural “Art X Social Justice” initiative aims to amplify voices of incarcerated people through art,” Columbia Spectator, January 20, 2020.

Margaret Tilley, “A closer look at incarcerated artists’ “Stories in Paper,” Columbia Spectator, February 5, 2020.

Facilitators and Collaborators:
Laura Betancur, Expressive Arts Therapist
Mia Ruyter, Justice in Education Initiative Coordinator
Zoë Dostal, Heven Haile, Rachel Lee Hutcheson, and Nikki Sarto, Volunteers