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Art From the Inside brings a voice to local incarcerated artists

The Weisman Art Museum’s most recent pop-up exhibition featured Art From the Inside – a Twin Cities based organization that highlights local incarcerated visual artists’ work.
Some of the pieces included in the “Transformation: Art From the Inside” exhibition hung next to a sign honoring Joseph Gomm. Courtesy of Art From the Inside.

From the outside, Weisman Art Museum’s (WAM) recent pop-up exhibition seems to fit right in with its modernistic rendition of School of Athens, paper mache globe-like sculpture and its foot-long, intricately beaded jewelry sitting securely behind safety glass. That is, until you notice the quotes hanging around the room.

“It is progress, not perfection.” – Karessa BirdHorse
“Change is an everyday practice and a hard lesson in awareness.” – Francisco Mountain
“Art … Is a second life full of endless chances.” – Alicia Mohrland

WAM’s “Transformation: Art From the Inside” exhibition featured art from Art From the Inside, a local organization that highlights art made by incarcerated artists in Stillwater and Shakopee correctional facilities.

Jennifer Marx, an artist included in the exhibition, explained that the program did more than just allow the artists to open up artistically. Each piece included in the exhibition was set at a price for sale by the artist who created it, and if bought, the profit either goes directly to the incarcerated artist’s financial accounts inside the correctional facility or to their family.

“What Antonio and Jessica are doing is providing a way for the artists to provide for themselves in a legal fashion and it helps fight that burden of being in a financial crisis,” Marx explained over the phone. “That’s phenomenal. It’s giving people who are incarcerated a fighting chance.”

Marx was housed in Shakopee Correctional Facility since December 2018, and is now living in a halfway house. From learning to shade in drawings with her grandmother as a little girl to accumulating a fascination with drawing mythological creatures once she got older, Marx’s passion for art has grown into a future with Art From the Inside as an advocate and voice on the inside of the correctional facilities. With her experience inside Shakopee Correctional Facility and her work created through Art From the Inside, she hopes to bring a more specific voice to the upcoming exhibits — one that comes directly from the artists creating the pieces.

“When you become incarcerated, people tend to forget about you and it’s a sad truth,” Marx said. “So, I’m really hoping to become a voice for the people on the inside through [Art From the Inside] now that I’m on the outside and I have connections on the inside.”

Antonio Espinosa standing next to the welcome sign of the exhibition. Courtesy of Art From the Inside.

Antonio Espinosa, the founder of Art From the Inside and a retired correctional officer of over nineteen years, stood with confidence as visitors of the exhibition meandered through the room. His stance was strong, his face was calm and he stood next to a sign with a picture of Joseph Gomm near the entrance of the exhibit.

“This is all for him,” Espinosa said. “If he hadn’t been killed, none of this would have ever started.”

In 2018, Gomm — a correctional officer and close friend of Espinosa — was killed by an incarcerated person at Stillwater Correctional Facility. Espinosa explained that the event caused a shift between the guards and incarcerated people, and although the Minnesota Department of Corrections offered talking groups, anger infiltrated the facility.

“I wanted to do something positive because of my friend, and I wanted to do something to build a bridge instead of walls between the officers and the population,” Espinosa said.

With a team made up of his wife, family, volunteers, web designers, photographers and a videographer, Espinosa highlights the art of incarcerated people living in Stillwater and Shakopee Correctional Facilities, and hopes to expand to Red Wing Correctional Facility in the future. Art From the Inside doesn’t offer art supplies for the projects, so the artists use whatever materials they decide on – some use art materials bought through the Minnesota Department of Corrections, while others use coffee, vegetables, cardboard or bedsheets for canvases.

Espinosa made the decision to donate 10% of the total proceeds from the “Transformation: Art From the Inside” exhibition to the Children’s Hospital, while the rest of the profits from the pieces goes directly to the artists in the program. Art From the Inside does not take profit from any of the works, but is funded by grants and fellowships achieved by Espinosa.

A piece included in the “Transformation: Art From the Inside” exhibition. Courtesy of Kimani Beard.

“Ninety percent of these folks come out of prison and go back into our society and become our neighbors and part of our community,” Espinosa said. “As a community, people need to open up and give these folks opportunities.”

“Transformation: Art From the Inside” has been one of several exhibitions hung on WAM’s walls over the past four years that promotes art centralized on addressing mass incarceration in Minnesota.

“For people who are incarcerated, art is literally a lifeline,” Boris Oicherman, the curator of the exhibit and one of WAM’s two creative curators, said. “My reaction was pure amazement on how people are driven to create art in the harshest conditions of their lives.”

After an exhibit created by Daniel McCarthy Clifford in 2018 — then a recent graduate of the University of Minnesota — focused on highlighting censorship that occurs around incarcerated reading options, the work sparked conversation between professors and employees of the University about the possibility of reversing the ripple effect of incarceration.

Through those conversations, Just Education Collaborative was born. The collaborative is a combination of leaders of the University’s Law School, Academic Health Center, WAM and other University stakeholders exploring how to approach mass incarceration in Minnesota. Art From the Inside is part of a conversation that has been happening for the past four years at WAM.

“The question that we asked was: museums know how to support creation and new works by artists,” Oicherman said. “We can do residencies, we can do commissions. But, how can museums support the creation of new work made by incarcerated artists?”

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