Pitzer art exhibits emphasize prison reform

A man and a woman view drawings of Mother Teresa and Albert Einstein, along with a painting of The Last Supper, as part of the Disruption! art exhibit.
Visitors admire the work of Stan Hunter, who taught himself to paint while incarcerated for 30 years, at the Nichols Gallery’s Disruption! exhibit. (Alyssa Leong • The Student Life)

Prison reform, abolition and justice have been popular topics of conversation across the Claremont Colleges, and on Sept. 14, Pitzer College transformed these abstract conversations into concrete pieces of art. 

Pitzer College opened its Lenzner and Nichols Galleries for the first time this academic year to present two complementary exhibitions: “Disruption! Art and the Prison Industrial Complex” and “Degrees of Visibility.” The exhibits considered the social effects of the U.S. penal system, the aesthetics of mass incarceration and how art can change the lives of those affected by the prison system.

“Disruption!” showcased nine artists, four of which have been or are currently incarcerated. The  exhibit was curated by Annie Buckley, founder of Prison Arts Collective, which currently facilitates programming in 10 prisons across California. 

Buckley expressed the significance of giving voices to incarcerated artists. 

“Many of the people I know who are incarcerated and artists ask me, ‘Can you show my work?’ because they want their voices heard,” Buckley said. “They want people to know that they’re human.”

Stan Hunter, one of the featured artists in “Disruption!”, was incarcerated for more than 30 years. During his time in prison, he taught himself to paint and draw, using his art to communicate and connect with his loved ones. Hunter began to use a white colored pencil, drawing shadows to create 3D effects, before going on to teach others in the prison how to paint.

Hunter explains how art helped him connect with his inner self. Like several pieces in the exhibit, Hunter’s work moves beyond aesthetic and centers around the healing and transformative effects of art.

“There’s just something magical about engaging in art that can take you from being lost and stuck,” Hunter said. “I still don’t think I’m an artist. But I certainly have something to care and talk about.”

Now Hunter is a lead teaching artist at the Prison Arts Collective. Working with incarcerated individuals, Hunter helps them learn how to make art and use it as a medium to connect with family and friends. 

“I tell these guys to bring me a photo of your loved one and we’re going to paint and mail it to them and all of a sudden it’s a new lease on life for them,” Hunter said.

There are photographs on the wall and a display of photographs coming up from the floor.
Ashley Hunt’s photographs examine prisons, jails and detention centers in American landscapes. (HuxleyAnn Huefner • The Student Life)

Meanwhile, in Ashley Hunt’s “Degrees of Visibility,” Hunt explores the external aspects of the prison system. Hunt said he’s been examining the prison system through his work since the late 1990s, which affected how he photographed prisons during the late 2000s. 

Instead of trying to show what prisons look like, Hunt began to capture how prisons are concealed from the public. This new direction caused him to question if this recurring theme of camouflage is purposeful and speaks to mass incarceration and the prison industrial complex as a whole.

“I think people start to realize that, in reality, the prison industrial complex is about erasing certain people,” Hunt said.

In his work, Hunt hopes to not replicate the way prisons hide people, but to give incarcerated people visibility by educating audiences on the people in each complex.   

Jessica Sass PZ ’22, who worked as a curatorial intern for “Degrees of Visibility,” believes it’s important for students to come to the exhibit to engage in meaningful discussion about the U.S. penal system.  

“There’s a lot of rhetoric on campus around prison reform and prison abolition,” Sass said. “However, I feel this exhibit really gives students the opportunity to have these conversations beyond just a quick social media post. This event goes beyond performative activism to actual dialogue and conversation that can lead to more understanding.”

“Degrees of Visibility” is located in the Lenzner Family Art Gallery and “Disruption!” in the Nichols Gallery. The exhibitions will be open until Dec. 6.

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