Governors Island is more than just another out-of-the-way-ish New York City nook. After years of abandonment, the island’s only recently embarked on a steady climb towards reclamation and it remains largely stuck in the past, having missed out on years of the progress seen by the rest of the city while interned as an exclusive home for military officers, then a coast guard haven, before it was abandoned altogether in 1996, left to hang in an off-limits sort of limbo, with nature serving as its only developer.
Fresh off the ferry, you might be only 800 yards from Lower Manhattan, but as you make your way inland, the Manhattan skyline starts to disappear, obscured by the super old Fort Jay, untrimmed trees, shrubs, and rolling grassy hills. The sirens fade into the background too, and time itself seems to slow down.
It’s the perfect setting for Escaping Time, an art exhibition that has returned to the island for a second year, with a fresh crop of work made by artists with some connection to the United States prison system. But the show is about more than just prison art– Escaping Time asks viewers to consider the profoundly earth-shattering experience of mass incarceration on the individual and its sweeping consequences for society as a whole.
While imprisonment is one of the more effective ways humans can exert control over the passage of time (by stealing it away from others), Governors Island itself demonstrates that time is malleable– as a place where, for at least a few short hours, New Yorkers can actually escape the city’s relentless onslaught without spending too much time on the way to escaping it. Here, there are fewer barriers to contemplating a situation where, as the curators write: “time is not of the essence.”
Close to a decade of neglect has made for a piecemeal process of reclamation on Governors Island, one that’s transforming more than 250 years of button-down history rooted in officialdom and regiment into a sorta funky cultural-destination vibe. But there are even bigger plans on the horizon– on top of the more than $300 million the city’s already spent, the Mayor will select a blueprint for completing the island’s development by the end of this year. If you’re a pessimist (or maybe just a realist) these might be some of the last days to experience Governors Island as an idyllic refuge from the city’s speedy pace.
For now, renovations are either incomplete or oddly respectful of the slow, natural decay of the old structures still flanked by overgrowth. The trees and shrubs feel wild and untamed, and certain buildings remained untouched for the most part. There’s still plenty of room to wander and countless opportunities to stumble on landscapes that you won’t find in the visitors guide.
Nolan Park– the tree-lined row of faded canary-yellow houses built in the 19th-century and once home to military officers and their families– may have made it on the official map, and a few of these houses have become art galleries and other cultural centers. But the houses have been spared the usual sanitizing, periodizing museum-ification leveled on other historical sites. The tenants embrace cobwebs (to a point) and certain signs of wear, something that’s reflected across the island in some of the reopened older spaces.
The front door at #6a, the house that’s been entirely taken over by Escaping Time, seems to be permanently ajar (along with many other doors on the island), which is a little strange considering the show in question. But that’s just how chill things are on Governors Island. Walk through the door and it’s more than likely that Khesan Smalls, who was hired on last year as the sales director, will be milling around somewhere close at hand. He usually gives people a friendly run-down on the work, the context of the U.S. prison system, and can answer any questions people might have about the artists.
The vast majority of the 200 works included in the show were made inside the U.S. prison system– about 95 percent of them, by Khesan’s estimate. “It used to be 100 percent,” he explained. “As big as this place is, we still have more art.” The exhibition, which functions more like a traveling and ever-growing collection of art and educational initiative than a traditional art show, plans to continue acquiring, selling, and showing new work. “We’ll probably never ever run out of batteries,” said Smalls.
Other than the traveling life of their art work, the artists, for the most part, are cut off from society. Some of them have spent, or will spend, most of their lives behind bars– many of them will experience a cycle of release and re-incarceration, rotating in and out and the prison system ad infinitum. Tenola Gamble, the artist behind an abstract painting with soft green hues and smatterings of delicate charcoal-black, titled “Faces, in Green,” is a lifer.
“He’s 25-years-to-life,” Smalls explained. “His last crime was stealing expensive sunglasses– so the ‘three strikes’ in Cali.” Nevertheless, Gamble’s sold a lot of work through “Escaping Time” and is one of the more successful artists involved in the project and came to art on his own accord. He writes that he “wishes the world will share my knowledge and worldly experience through my artwork,” and reflects on prison as a place “where God and faith are all there is. And, of course, my art.”
“A lot of the guys are actually self-taught,” Smalls said.
The non-traditional artists find a spiritual match in the strange setting. The show’s organizers– curator Anastasia Voron (she works at an art auction house by day) and the producer Mark Thivierge (the project’s financial backing and director of Safe Streets Arts Foundation)– have worked side-by-side with the old’s houses rubble and inevitable decay. Instead of slapping fresh coats over peeling paint or chucking out the dusty old belongings, the art coexists with these remnants, adding to the feeling that you’re locked inside a ghostly time warp.
Still, the curators have made creative use of the space itself by hanging artwork inside closets, over doors, and dangling it down from the ceiling. Some works seem to be in conversation with the surroundings– upstairs, on the second floor, there’s “Desired Liberty” by Mark B. Springer. The subject is a black man, probably a slave, viewed from behind, his face is obscured and his hands are bound to a wooden pole. There’s no one else in the frame but, judging by the bloody slash marks on his back and the way he’s flinching in pain, it looks like he’s just been whipped. The bondage reflects a theme that’s repeated again and again throughout the show: the brutal history of slavery in America and its lasting legacies– endemic racism and entrenched inequality that are intrinsic to and reinforced by the prison system.
“Escaping Time” has no qualms about discussing the issue of racial inequality, something that’s impossible to ignore in the context of incarceration. You may not know the artists’ identity or ethnicity simply from seeing their work or their bio (though occasionally the artists do make this explicit), but black experience is there nonetheless. It dominates the show and is present in so much of the work in so many forms– in the cultural context, the physical background, the figurative portraits, and historical references. As it should be. The racial disparities in the U.S. criminal justice system are well documented, but a 2013 report by the Sentencing Project funnels all the depressing numbers into a succinct conclusion that’s useful to keep in mind while visiting the show– “The United States in effect operates two distinct criminal justice systems: one for wealthy people and another for poor people and minorities.”
Mark Springer’s painting of the bound and whipped man is part of an annex curated by Fury Young, the activist behind Die Jim Crow, an ongoing, collaborative effort to spotlight the work of formerly incarcerated artists and musicians from across the country. Young’s contribution to the show is just another facet of the Die Jim Crow output, joining an art book, an EP, and eventually, a full-length album of original music written and performed by prisoners and people who have spent time in the prison system.
The “Die Jim Crow wing,” as Fury calls it, takes up an entire room on the second floor. When I visited the show, Fury was still hanging up work, (check out his own collection here), some of the pieces mounted under decorative frames handmade by Fury (he’s a carpenter). The walls were already dense with his curatorial pickings, but there were still piles of pieces left to go, scattered around the perimeter waiting for a home. Fury admitted that he might not be able to fit everything, but some of it he’d already shown at another exhibition of prison art earlier this summer at the Sheen Center and will probably show again.
There were a few artists whose work I recognized already, Mark B. Springer included. Springer’s responsible for some of the boldest, most eye-popping works in the entire show, and Fury said that he’s a “huge part” of the Die Jim Crow project. Not only is the guy an incredibly prolific artist with his signature on more than 70 pieces of visual art, he’s also a talented musician, who co-wrote lyrics and musical arrangements for several tracks on the Die Jim Crow EP. “You could do a whole solo show for him,” Fury said. Springer’s done all of this work from inside the Warren Correctional Institution in Lebanon, Ohio.
You’ll notice right away that his paintings aren’t done on canvas or other traditional surfaces. Instead, he uses “ponchos,” Fury explained. I was a little confused at first since, in my mind anyway, a poncho looks more like a woolen drug rug than a surface fit for painting. “The poncho is the classic thing– it’s basically like a handkerchief,” he explained. It’s just one example of the ingenuity behind much of the work at “Escaping Time”– whether by process or materials, many incarcerated artists simply have to make do with what’s available.
Khesan explained that another common material is coffee grounds, often used as a sort of charcoal. “There was even people who used candy, like Skittles, for color,” he explained. “One guy used his hair and dental floss and made a paintbrush.” A piece Khesan sold the previous year called, “The Portrait of a Woman” was made with floor wax and toothpaste. “It was awesome, awesome, awesome,” he recalled, shaking his head.
Truly jaw-dropping, however, are the works where the incredible resourcefulness is buried beneath raw talent. Michael Gonzales, who’s currently inside Corcoran State Prison in California, has several pieces in the show, most of them smaller than a standard sheet of printer paper. I took them for lithographs, or even etchings at first, rife with Chicano art motifs and steeped in velvet black-light paintings and tattoo art. “Consequences of Time” is like a spacey, stoned dreamscape– a woman with a heart tattoo on her lower back sits topless on the hood of an old-fashioned truck, surrounded by a starry night sky.
Much of Gonzales’s work is deeply personal. In an artist statement, he writes that “Reflections,” another piece on view, depicts “a beautiful friend of mine who gave me a son and daughter” and that the work acts as a “forget me not of all the good times we had in a ’72 Monte Carlo.” I was totally blown away when I read that Gonzales had drawn these on book covers using a ball point pen.
While most incarcerated artists have to put some serious work into acquiring the necessary materials, a few of them are lucky enough to have access to art programs. The Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola, is an exceptional institution, and not only because nearly every prisoner is carrying at least a life sentence. Every year, in conjunction with the famous Angola Rodeo, the prison hosts a craft fair where incarcerated artists can sell their work to the public.
The art that comes out of Angola bears a striking contrast to the rest of the pieces at “Escaping Time.” While most of the show consists of two-dimensional work, some of Jeffrey Nelson’s pieces are three-dimensional sculptures, including a spotless hand-carved wooden bowl with an unearthly smoothness and a hand painted animal skull. The standout is “Lizard,” a red and black piece that looks a bit like volcanic rock or maybe resin. Actually, it was actually rendered from clay and a Coca-Cola can, according to the label. “They’ve got a really good program [at Angola], so he’s fortunate,” Smalls explained.
Nelson’s currently serving a life sentence for a murder he committed more than 20 years ago, when he was just 19 years old. “I was not a criminal I was just a lost country kid trying to be a man,” he writes in his artist statement. “I am doing all I know to do to better myself not just in the hopes of freedom but to become a better man.”
Recently, the curators have expanded the show’s scope to include formerly incarcerated artists, some of whom have been released since their participation in the project began. Jay Darden, an artist whose paintings drew a lot of attention from visitors even in the short time I was at the show, is one the recently released artists.
One visitor came close to buying his painting, “Girl with Bamboo Earring”– a play on Vermeer’s classic work, “Girl with a Pearl Earring.” Darden’s work has the same rich tones and his take on the impossibly perfect starkly-rendered lighting, only instead of a pale-faced white woman, his subject is an African American woman, with glowing mahogany cheeks, her face cast in deep chestnut shadows with bright caramel highlights.
The painting ended up being a little pricier than the visitor had hoped. As a first-time buyer, $250 sounded reasonable, but $400, she thought, was a little steep. Even though he didn’t make this particular sale, Khesan explained that Darden’s work’s been selling quite well. The rest of the art for sale throughout the house– priced as low as $50 and up to $1,000 with most around $250– might seem criminally underpriced if you’re at all acquainted with the city’s gallery scene.
But the artists receive a generous cut of the sales, and these relatively low prices make the art accessible to new art collectors. That’s part of what makes “Escaping Time” so fun, and relatable– the art world is within reach for both buyer and seller. “The target is 50 percent returned to the artist or their designated beneficiary, usually family or a charity,” explained Mark Thivierge, the exhibition’s producer. Artists who have been released from prison can earn up to 75 percent, and a quarter goes to the show’s staff, all of whom are formerly incarcerated people. Any leftover funds go to cover the cost of the show.
As Khesan Smalls will tell you himself, he was released from prison in 2014 after a six-and-a-half-year stint, the latest and longest in several periods of incarceration. As a spoken word artist, he said that he mainly focused on his music and writing poetry while in prison. “There’s songs that I sing when people come in, I give them a little account of what I was doing, a verse or two,” he explained. “Also [prison] helped me get into that whole [idea of] follow your passion.”
I wondered what “Escaping Time” does for the artists, the people who are still serving time, and for those who might never get out. “Validation,” Smalls said right away. “When you become incarcerated, there’s a lot of guilt and, deep down, a lot of us wanna be ‘in’ and when you’re incarcerated, you’re reminded that you messed up enough for society to outcast you for whatever amount of time. Then when you get home, you know it’s gonna be a hard climb back up for people to accept you. So when you have artwork, and people are buying it and they’re enjoying it, you’re validated as being a part of society again in some way.”
Smalls added that it’s possible to grow incredibly frustrated with the restrictiveness of prison life. “Because you can turn into an animal and forget about the world [in] there, and then have to readjust, so [art] might keep them a little more humane.”
As the exhibition’s director of sales, Small has a very specific job to do, but he’s also the de facto liaison, offering visitors who may have very little understanding about incarceration an explanation of what exactly they’re looking at. He’s got a memory bank full of information about each artist, right down to where they’re serving time.
“For us, we also wanna have the story, not just the art,” he explained. “We want a narrative, the story of why they’re there. And it’s just cool when we see real change, the human aspect of the artist contrasted with whatever the crime was.”
While hearing these stories can reinforce just how removed these incarcerated artists are from visitors to Governors Island, a place of leisure and fun, seeing what prisoners have made with their own hands is a powerful way to demonstrate our common humanity, and the possibility and potential in all of us, regardless of the circumstance and especially in the face of oppression.
“Escaping Time” takes advantage of the opportunity to educate their visitors on the bleak realities of the US prison system. While there are several signs posted throughout the space, detailing sobering facts and statistics, it’s the artwork that speaks louder that numbers ever will. Smalls explained that, over the years he’s learned that artwork acts as an icebreaker.
After the Governors Island show ended last year, “Escaping Time” opened a pop-up space in Bed-Stuy. Khesan was impressed by the result: “I had all kinds of people coming in– young people, I was doing workshops with them, we had ex-correctional officers come in, older people, even the crackheads came in!” He found that “the social aspect of it” was his greatest passion. “Yeah, the art is awesome, and to be able to help the guys out is awesome,” he said. “But how the artwork acts as the glue, bringing the community together about these types of issues and to speak about them in a sacred place is really cool.”
By appealing to all kinds of people, Khesan feels there’s a better hope for “changing the system from all sides.”
The show succeeds not just for the quality of art work, but because it has a remarkable ability to forge new connections. While many people who come through are confirmed in their feeling that the prison system is in desperate need of reform, a great deal of visitors– “the everyday people” Khesan called them– are dealt a surprising blow.
Last year, as a group was leaving the house, Khesan stopped them to ask if they had enjoyed the show. “And the woman was like, ‘ I wouldn’t call it that,’ and she started crying,” he recalled. “A lot of people just don’t know, they’re not familiar with the injustices and they see everybody [in prison] as the rapists or the crazy killers, and then they realize that there’s a lot of people incarcerated, and for things that may not seem really fair. And then you see the beauty that they can make and it reminds you of how human they are, they can do things that you might never have imagined you could do.”
The curators write about the “forced introspection” experienced by prisoners, and suggest that art can act as a form of “escapism.” The visitors of “Escaping Time” are also compelled to reflect deeply on forced confinement. As the cliche goes– prison offers a surplus of time, presumably to be spent recalling the crime that landed the prisoner here and inspires them to grapple with how they can be redeemed. There are some common refrains in the artist statements– the idea of “bettering” oneself, embarking on a new life, finding spiritual purpose, discovering one’s true self, even converting to selflessness.
Some basic realities of imprisonment are fairly universal. The cultural products of prison seem to generally agree that atonement involves some form of creativity or productivity, and that an escape from the monotony and dehumanizing effects of incarceration, through some form of resistance, is the key to retaining your grip on humanity.
For me anyway, the idea of art-making in prison sparks an immediate connection to Russian literature. Russia has a long history of political repression and a very potent collective memory and entire cultural milieu related to the nation’s gulag system. Much like we’ve seen in the United States, Russia’s had a difficult time in dealing with a long history of terrorizing its own people through imprisonment and forced labor.
So many of Russia’s treasured artists experienced the gulag first hand– Fyodor Dostoevsky famously spent four years in exile, sentenced by the Tsarist regime to hard labor at a Siberian work camp. The conditions were brutal, made worse by (as he described in a letter he wrote after his release) the “almost total unavailability of books.” He could not read or write while imprisoned and recalled the time passing “drearily” and “sluggishly.” Dostoevsky remembered “those long, tedious days as being monotonous as the dripping water from the roof after rain.” It wasn’t until later, when Dostoevsky relayed these experiences through literature in The House of the Dead that he found redemption: “I experienced the most terrible isolation, and in the end I came to cherish that isolation. Inwardly, alone, I renewed the whole of my past life.”
In Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, the novel’s hero manages to survive the brutal conditions of a Siberian labor camp by finding purpose through work and focusing intensely on the moment at hand. “Time moves rapidly in prison but leads nowhere,” the prisoner, Shukhov says. Unlike Dostoevsky, Solzhenitsyn managed to write in prison. He reflected on the experience after his release: “I nourished my soul there, and I say without hesitation: Bless you, prison, for having been in my life.”
Which is not to say that any one of the artists in “Escaping Time” should or would necessarily feel similarly #blessed to be incarcerated. Rather, both Russian writers discovered that redemption can only be rewarded by oneself– something that the artists of “Escaping Time” are keenly aware of. So, in a way, through their work, the incarcerated artists are actually able to escape time– and by turning their exile into a period of creative productivity, they’re better able to connect with the society they’ve been ripped out of. Though prisoners may have little control over their day-to-day lives, creative expression is a way of regaining agency– a type of control that’s much harder to take away.
“Escaping Time” certainly has a didactic element– visitors encounter plenty of facts and figures that are no doubt important in their own right. But the show also inspires viewers to feel a kind of empathy that can’t really be taught. “I think this [show] helps put people more into the middle,” Khesan explained. “Because we do need justice and things like that, but these are humans and then you start realizing, we’ve all made mistake.”