Sandow Birk is an artist specializing in 19th Century landscapes, particularly of his native California. For a recent exhibition, however, Birk has turned his attention from bucolic vineyards and peaceful coastlines to a somewhat unexpected subject – the landscapes of the state’s prisons.
Geographies of Detention, currently taking place at the California Museum of Photography, looks at prison spaces, both from the outside and within, and examines what those spaces say about our attitudes and perceptions of the criminal justice system.
For Birk, the dramatic growth of the prison system in California reveals a stark reality that stands in contradiction to the idealistic depictions of the state common among earlier artists.
“What was really striking to me about these works from the past was that they were all so optimistic about California,” Birk says. “… It was the whole idea that California was this American paradise.”
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A radio report on California’s prison system, however, gave Birk a new perspective on the Golden State:
I was just driving along in my car and on the radio I overheard it said that California has a higher percentage of its population in prison of anywhere on Earth. And it was just this really striking sentence to me, because I’d been so much thinking about California as this wonderful place, and then to find out 150 years later, after the Gold Rush, now it’s the most incarerated people on the planet. The two ideas were jarring, and such a shock, so I embarked on this mission to paint all of the paintings of prisons.
The result is a series of 33 paintings, depicting each of the state run prisons in California. The cheerful colors and grand vistas almost mask the seriousness of the subject matter, and serve as a reminder that even in the grandest Edens of mankind there remains the dark mark of original sin and human failing.
“[T]here are statistics we can tell people, like there are 2.3 million Americans behind bars, and California has the most of them,” says Molly McGarry, co-currator of the Geographies of Detention exhibition. “But statistics have a kind of numbing abstraction, and art does a different kind of work.”
Another artist in the exhibition takes a different approach to telling the story of prisoners and how art can bring a little of the outside world behind prison bars. A collection of pictures collected from inmates and their families depicts prisoners in front of various backdrops created by the prisoners themselves.
The project has a personal meaning for Alyse Emdur, who had an older brother who was incarcerated:
About six years ago, I found a Polaroid photograph in a family photo album of myself at age five, with my sister, visiting our older brother at Bayside State Prison in Leesburg, New Jersey. And this image, along with many other images that I found of my family members visiting my brother in prison instantly captivated me, because the backdrop, which represents freedom, was the exact opposite of the prison’s mission, and of the reality that my brother was living.
The collection of photographs tells a story about the dreams and wishes of those behind bars. Some are portrayals of idyllic countrysides or majestic manors. Others depict cityscapes or grand waterfalls. The one constant theme for all the backdrops, however, is freedom.
Like the picture she found in her photo album, many of the images show inmates with spouses or children taken during visitation – another example of the freedom both the inmates and their families desire. “You know,” says Emdur, “even if someone is guilty, they are still a human being, and they still have a family – especially the children who have parents in prison. These are the images that those children see if their father’s in prison. This is the only image of your father. I think the loved ones of the incarcerated really are the collateral damage of the prison system.”
McGarry is correct when she says that “art does a different kind of work.” In many ways, art is able to convey certain truths more concisely than words, and more powerfully than statistics. Artists like Birk and Emdur can shine light on the things that many people choose to ignore, and can also reveal the light that emanates from the prisons and hopes for a better life where mere depictions of freedom can become a reality.
For Christians, there is a third kind of light present in art – one that illuminates and reveals the Source of all beauty and light. “My faith is not what I write about or what I paint about,” says author Flannery O’Connor, “but it is the light by which I see.” Indeed, such light changes how we view subjects like prisons and inmates, and opens our eyes – not only to how things are, but how God would have them be. A light like this should reveal to us God’s love and compassion, and guide our footsteps to do His will, in whatever medium he has called us to use.
“If our lives are truly ‘hid with Christ in God,’ the astounding thing is that this hiddenness is revealed in all that we do and say and write,” says Madeleine L’Engle. “What we are is going to be visible in our art, no matter how secular (on the surface) the subject may be.” It is important that Christians be tireless in serving God in their various vocations, knowing that God will reveal himself through us, even as He works to make us better reflections of Him.