For more than a year, Vanderbilt professor Lisa Guenther had been leading a weekly discussion group, studying literature by Plato, Martin Luther King Jr. and Michelle Alexander. When the discussion reached an apex, the students told her they wanted to explore their ideas further with an art show. Getting grant money for the art supplies was easy, Guenther recalls. But she ran into problems when she tried to bring the supplies to class. Glue and scissors are off limits in prison, and Guenther's students are all on death row.
They call themselves Reconciling Every Human Being And Cultivating Humanitarianism, or REACH. Each week Guenther and a handful of volunteers meet in Unit 2 of Riverbend Maximum Security Institution to talk over issues of race, power, justice and spiritual growth. Many times, Guenther says, she wished she'd recorded the powerful discussions within. When the chance arose to reach the public, Guenther sensed she had an important, potentially life-changing project.
"We had a brainstorming session that started with a big piece of paper," Guenther says. "It came about because some of the guys said, 'OK we've talked about a lot of interesting things, now what are we going to do?' Part of me wanted to tell them, 'Talking is doing. We're starting a conversation.' But they wanted more."
The result is Prison Galleries, a new exhibition of art by Tennessee death row inmates at Vanderbilt's Sarratt Gallery. Such exhibits can sometimes lapse into morbid novelty, grotesque sentimentality or strident self-pity. But Guenther's students don't plead for forgiveness or defend themselves. Unlike the prison system they're a part of, their work isn't that black-and-white.
Donald Middlebrooks' painting "Midnight" is a study in one-point perspective, but with all the traditional values of light and dark reversed. The cell he presents is as empty as a lifetime awaiting death. By contrast, Devin Banks' leather folders emblazoned with the ecstatic face of Donna Summer are a highlight, as are Richard Odom's brightly colored chair and ottoman sets. Odom made his miniature chairs from discarded toilet paper rolls, a technique passed along by another prisoner.
"Society has flushed us down the toilet," Odom says in the curator's statement. "But we can still make something beautiful with the leftovers."
The closely cropped composition of Kennath Artez Henderson's realistic self-portrait emphasizes the voyeurism of the audience, and Dennis Suttles' small barnyard scene is a prime example of the artists' necessary resourcefulness — each animal is made from white bread and water, with leftover corn-dog sticks repurposed as fence posts.
By not telling what landed the artists on death row, some would argue, the exhibit evades tough questions that such a project raises. Some of the participants stand convicted of truly heinous crimes. But Prison Galleries wants us to consider its artists' restricted viewpoint and shared fate — a more disturbing prospect than knee-jerk condemnation.
Derrick Quintero's "If My Journey Were a Book Title" is among the most striking pieces. Constructed like a blown-apart diorama of Quintero's cell, "Journey" is detailed so fastidiously that its audience must slow down to view it at prison speed. The shiny faux-chrome sink and toilet were fashioned out of balsa wood, while a disarmingly realistic Quintero sits against the cell bed, molded from a concoction of toilet paper, water and glue.
More dramatic still is Harold Wayne Nichols' piece, a cell representation that required a mirror panel. Because bringing a mirror into prison was out of the question, Nichols himself has never seen the finished product. One look at the piece, though, and you know its inclusion is essential.
The cell's walls enclose the piece from all four sides. The only way to see inside is to peer through a small rectangular slot (a "pie flap," in prison slang). What's inside are cheerful family photographs in an asymmetrical grid. Present in that grid, however, is the pie flap you're looking through — with your own eyes staring back. The photographs are not on the opposite wall, but reflected against a mirror like a funhouse trick. The disorienting effect of finding your own presence on the inside is startling, eerie and ultimately devastating.
"My vision of people on death row was that they were constantly living with death in their faces," says Guenther. "And that's the background reality, sure. But they have projects, they have minor conflicts and interests and big projects they're working on — they're very busy with day-to-day life. People on the outside do this too: We all know that we're going to die, but we don't constantly think about it. We've got to get on with life."
Put another way: Each of us lives under a death sentence. From that existential fact, Prison Galleries hopes to ignite a spark of empathy. On that score, its artists are resoundingly successful. They don't ask to be pitied — only seen.