Prisoner Express, a vast program that provides resources for incarcerated people across the country, is, for the first time, holding a traveling art show in Tompkins County, and the Ulysses Philomathic Library in Trumansburg is its first stop.
Prisoner Express began 20 years ago, when founder Gary Fine at the Durland Alternatives Library at Cornell University received a letter from a prisoner requesting books. Fine had to deny the man’s request, but that response elicited many thanks from the prisoner.
“People in prison, mail is everything,” Fine said. “If you’re in prison and you don’t know what to do with yourself, you can always pull out an old letter, read it again.”
That correspondence inspired Fine to send the prisoner books, and from there, the program only grew, sending books to prisoners all over the world. In 2004, Prisoner Express started its first-ever newsletter, which includes essays and other works by prisoners and currently reaches over 4,000 prisoners worldwide.
About 10 years ago, Prisoner Express introduced an art program, bringing on Treacy Ziegler as art director to help teach prisoners art skills and provide shows for them to display their work. Ziegler said that, as an artist herself, she was drawn to Prisoner Express for its dedication to serving a population that is typically ignored.
She said that she saw an opportunity to help disadvantaged prisoners, who are held in isolation or just in general missing out on important social interactions and are eager to learn and have a connection to the world outside.
“So many individuals in our program don’t have … support, and so, we become very active in their lives,” Ziegler said. “I enjoy seeing how people create universes for themselves in art.”
Fine agreed, as he sees self-expression as crucial to proper mental health in prison, which is generally hard to maintain.
“By giving them a chance to show their work, it gives them a sense of importance,” Fine said. “It gets their voice out there.”
In spring of 2019, Zieglar asked Ksana Broadwell, director of the Trumansburg library, if Ulysses would be interested in hosting the art show, and, as Broadwell said, it was an obvious yes.
“Here, we always start with the baseline that the library is for everyone, and part of doing that work is making sure the communities that can be invisible are seen,” Broadwell said. “This seemed like such a natural fit as a library in a very strong arts community to bring the arts of people who are incarcerated to the public view.”
Fine said that, despite the way society at large tends to treat prisoners, prisoners deserve respect. The benefit to this exhibit stretches beyond Trumansburg, Fine said, as prisoners who are treated with dignity and respect will pay it forward when they are released, ultimately helping to reduce recidivism.
“One way it helps Tompkins County is that if people come out of prison and they feel connected to something and they feel hopeful, then there’s more of a chance that they’ll be successful on the outside,” Fine said.
Ziegler acknowledges that, while prisoners are not typical artists, as the two worlds are in stark contrast, that does not mean it cannot be a huge asset to the prisoners.
“I was trained to leave judgment at the door, but art is all about judgment,” Ziegler said. “[Art] has this powerful catalyst for people, that … creates a powerful sense of self.”
Broadwell said the art show fits both the library and the surrounding community, as Trumansburg is full of creative works.
“The culture of Trumansburg is one that is strongly influenced by arts and music,” she said. “And so, this just seemed a new, interesting way to explore what art means to different communities in the library.”
All sorts of styles, subjects and techniques are on display at the library, with brief biographies of the artists and a mailing address under each piece. Broadwell said she loves that no two pieces are the same.
“I look at this art, and it’s all sorts of different styles,” she said. “It’s just something very unique that we don’t get to see every day.”
The exhibit will end in a presentation and workshop led by Zieglar on Aug. 6 at 6:30 p.m. Audience members will be asked to critically analyze the works on display and then will have the opportunities to write letters to the artists, responding to their work.
Zieglar said the hope is to help audiences see the artists not for the crimes they did, but for the complex people they are.
“One of the things that you want to do in giving artwork out to the community is that you want them to see the prisoner beyond this bad person that’s been sent to jail to get a more complex understanding of that person,” she said.
Broadwell said this interactive portion is the crucial aspect to the exhibit.
“It’s part of the human condition,” Broadwell said. “As libraries, more and more, we’re becoming centers for the community instead of just the book repository. … Human interaction is a very important part of what makes us human and builds our society.”
Funding for Prisoner Express comes mostly from donors, Fine said, but for this exhibit, the necessarily additional funds are thanks to a Student Community Partnership Board grant through the Public Service Center at Cornell Community Partnership, which provided roughly $1,800 to write to all the prisoners and purchase supplies.
If those interested cannot attended the workshop, Broadwell said the letter box will stay with the exhibit for the entire time the prisoners’ art is at the library, so people can respond to the pieces at their convenience. After Aug. 7, when the show comes down from Ulysses, the next stop is Newfield.
Those interested in Prisoner Express, volunteering or just learning more, are advised to check out prisonerexpress.org, which features newsletters from years past, samples of writing, contacts and additional resources.
For those attending the Finger Lakes Grassroots Festival of Music and Dance, Fine will be at the massage booth and is open to answering any questions regarding the Prisoner Express program and exhibit.
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