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By Kathryn Kopchik
LEWISBURG, Pa. — An exhibition of artwork created by Pennsylvania prisoners will be hosted at Bucknell University's Samek Art Gallery Oct. 14 through Dec. 4.
Located in the Project Room, "Freehand" is organized by the Samek Art Gallery in partnership with the Lewisburg Prison Project. It is guest-curated by Shawna Meiser.
"Freehand" features artworks produced by inmates at Pennsylvania correctional institutions at the county, state and federal levels. Through presenting the talents of Pennsylvania inmates, the goal of this exhibition is to promote a dialogue of ideas between prisoners and those on the outside.
A social justice advocacy group, the Lewisburg Prison Project produced this exhibition with the hope that viewers may consider what lies beyond the "prisoner" stereotype. One in every 32 adults is incarcerated, or on parole or probation in the U.S. (BJS, 2009).
Looking past the stereotypes
"The nightly news and blockbuster thrillers lead many of us to believe that all people who serve time behind bars are incurably violent and evil, but this is far from the truth," said Meiser. "What would we find if we looked past our stereotypes? Are we able to see inmates' capacity for love, personal growth, and even kindness? This exhibition is not meant to condone prisoners' illegal actions, but to foreground the humanity that is evidenced in their artwork," she said.
For inmates, the act of creating is a source of productivity, self-esteem, identity, and mental peace — qualities that are not easily obtained within the prison. Several studies show that inmates who participate in art programs maintain better behavior while serving their sentences, and that engagement with the arts helps inmates transition more successfully back into society.
"Very few of the artists in 'Freehand' have formal training in art, but many create prolifically. Their work engages fundamental aspects of life: family, politics, physicality, nature and religion. Through the visual language of their artwork, this exhibition allows inmates a rare opportunity to share their values and ideas with those beyond the prison walls, and allows us to re-examine our assumptions," said Meiser.
In conjunction with the exhibition, the film, "Shakespeare Behind Bars," will be shown Monday, Oct. 24, at 7 p.m. in the Gallery Theatre of the Elaine Langone Center. The screening, which is free and open to public, documents the efforts of the prison theatre program.
The award-winning documentary premiered at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival. It documents the production of "The Tempest" performed by inmates at the Luther Luckett Correctional Complex in Kentucky.
In its 16th year, Shakespeare Behind Bars offers theatrical encounters with personal and social issues to the incarcerated, allowing them to develop life skills that will ensure their successful reintegration into society. The program immerses participants in the nine-month process of producing a Shakespeare play and uses the healing power of the arts to transforming inmate offenders.
On Nov. 8 at 7 p.m., Phyllis Kornfeld — who has taught art courses in the prison system for more than 25 years — will deliver a lecture on criminal justice and the arts. The lecture will be followed by an opening reception in the gallery.
The Samek Art Gallery is located on the third floor of the Elaine Langone Center, and is accessible by elevator. Admission is free. Gallery hours during the academic year are weekdays 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Thursdays 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., weekends 1 to 5 p.m., and by appointment.
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