Along with the art itself, the big attraction of attending a local exhibition’s opening night is getting the chance to meet the artists themselves.
But that won’t be the case for “Artists in Absentia,” a show opening Thursday evening in the Bubbler gallery of Madison’s Central Library. The work on display came out of the Oakhill Prison Humanities Project, and most of its creators are still incarcerated.
Humanities courses taught by volunteers at Oakhill Correctional Institution in Oregon form the core of the project. The classes are taught mostly by UW-Madison graduate students and faculty members. And like the teachers, inmates choose whether to participate.
“We typically offer one class per weeknight: creative writing, drama, art, history, philosophy,” said José Vergara, a Ph.D. candidate in the UW-Madison Department of Slavic Languages and Literature, who spent several years teaching Russian and world literature at Oakhill.
Nearly a year ago, Vergara came up with the idea of putting together a public exhibition to showcase the program’s creative output. The works in “Artists in Absentia” were created by inmates from summer through fall 2015.
“The primary reason was getting the work out, letting the voices of these men be heard by a wider public,” Vergara said. “A lot of the guys in the creative writing class ask for tips about getting their work published. They’re definitely interested in getting their work out there and getting heard.”
“Almost all of the creative work done in the prison just ends up stuck there, behind the walls,” he said. “I started looking for funding and talked to the prison administration to see what we could do. It’s taken awhile, but it’s really gone very smoothly, and the prison administration has been really supportive of this project and our classes in general.”
On display will be pieces produced in a creative writing class, along with recordings of the inmates reading their works; wide-ranging portraiture and landscapes from an art class; video or audio of original “mini-plays” written in a drama class; and recordings of music performed in the prison’s music room. Credit is given to each artist by first name and last initial to preserve anonymity.
The project includes a series of films by Madison filmmaker and retired schoolteacher Marc Kornblatt. Kornblatt’s 56-minute documentary titled “Dostoevsky Behind Bars” was the winner of a 2014 Golden Badger award given to an outstanding film with a Wisconsin connection by the Wisconsin Film Festival.
A selection of Kornblatt’s more recent videos from Oakhill are online at the exhibition’s website, www.artistsinabsentia.com, and Thursday’s opening will include a documentary preview screening. Many other works from the show will also be on the website after the opening, and related programs will be held at the Bubbler during the show’s run from March 3-31.
Kornblatt’s online videos are striking not only in the creativity and talent they display, but also the way they reveal the ordinariness of the inmates — men who, had they made other choices, appear they could be anyone’s neighbor.
“I think doing an event like an exhibit allows us to really humanize the prison experience, or at least provide a different perspective on what men do or can choose to do in a prison,” Vergara said.
“A lot of what we think about a prison comes from movies or TV, and it’s usually such a negative perspective.“I’m not saying prisons are really rosy in any particular way, but there are these spaces for creativity and insight and learning and grace, where these men exchange ideas and learn new skills, and learn how to relate to each other and share with one another their opinions, their perspectives, their goals,” he said.
“Some of the art in this exhibit, I feel, provides a window into that space and the world of these men.”
[Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect a correction. In an earlier version, the photo caption accompanying "Country Painting" incorrectly listed the name of the artist. The painting is by Jon W.]