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Photo by: Holly Carden and Wayne Nichols | “Untitled (Add-On Drawing), 2013, colored pencil on paper

Creative expression might not be a high priority for those housed within the concrete walls of Tennessee’s Riverbend Maximum Security Institution, home to the state’s electric chair and lethal injection machinery. The insiders are likely more concerned with the grim reality of their situation. But thanks to artwork created by prisoners in tandem with students and professors at nearby Watkins College of Art, Design & Film in Nashville, the wider world has a window into ther lives and minds.

Robin Paris and Tom Williams with writing by Gary Cone, Harold Wayne Nichols, and Donald Middlebrooks: Surrogate Project For Harold Wayne Nichols, The Night Sky Series

Watkins professors Robin Paris and Tom Williams spearheaded “Unit 2 (part 1),” a series of collaborations between students, local artists, and 11 death row inmates. The project is split between collaborative "add-on" works, where students added to and modified pieces in a back-and-forth exhange with prisoners, and “surrogate projects,” creations directed by incarcerated artists who physically couldn’t follow through on their ideas in the outside world. Within this framework, a simple photo of a night sky gains extra resonance, as the transfixing image of stars is one the artist hadn't seen for three decades.

 Exhibition at Coop Gallery

“This project has fundamentally changed my understanding of both criminal justice and prison,” says Williams. “Many of these prisoners look a lot more like us than we've been told, and we look a lot more like them. They're billed as 'the worst of the worst' within the popular media, but the situation seems far more complex than that to me now. Death row raises a lot of difficult questions. Many of them are responsible for serious crimes. But they have also been failed by a justice system that has offered them inadequate defense and has failed to consider the often-tragic circumstances that led up to their crimes. In many instances, their crimes are comparable to those of individuals living with sentences that are far less severe.” 

Upreyl Mitchell and Kennath Artez Henderson: Photograph and drawing
 Abu Ali Abdur’Rahman and Kristi Hargrove: Untitled, mixed media on paper

"Unit 2 (part 1)" can be seen at the Coop Gallery at 75 Arcade Street in Nashville through September 28. Future collaborations are planned but, as Williams notes, “Many of the insiders don't have a lot of time, which is a difficult thing to consider.”

A few years ago Alyse Emdur found a photo of herself as a child posing in front of a mural of a beach with her two siblings. When she asked about the photo, her parents explained it was taken in a prison lobby during a family visit to see her then-incarcerated brother. After some research she found that these backdrop murals are actually a common practice for prisons, and in many cases are even painted by talented inmates.

The logic for prisons is that limiting photography to what's essentially an impromptu portrait studio protects potentially sensitive images of the prison's structure from being shared, while still allowing families to snap photos together that don't necessarily reveal that one member of the family is currently incarcerated.

When Emdur asked prisons for access to photograph a series of the backdrops for her book, almost every location denied her request. So instead of taking the photos herself, she collected images by exchanging letters directly with inmates asking if they'd share any family photos, and she eventually received 16 binders worth. 

Head over to BLDGBlog to read an interview with Alyse Emdur about the project. Alyse Emdur's book, Prison Landscapes, is available now.