GREENFIELD — The “Unchained Art” exhibit began like so many ideas — with a conversation. But this conversation didn’t happen over coffee at Starbucks; it took place, instead, in a letter between organizer Stacey Poe and a family friend who made some poor choices.
Those choices landed the man in prison, and he wrote to Poe from the Wabash Valley Correctional Facility in Terre Haute.
Poe’s friend is an artist, and his letter spoke of the importance of art in his life, both before his incarceration and now behind bars. Art is cathartic for many inmates, he wrote to Poe, and wouldn’t it be great if there were a gallery that would be willing to display their work?
The result of that conversation is “Unchained Art,” a display of artwork by Indiana prison inmates, on display now through Dec. 18 in the Middle Gallery at the Creative Arts and Event Center.
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Poe’s dance studio, Rhythms by Stacey, just happens to be located on the second floor of the Creative Arts and Event Center. The first floor of that facility is home to a number of businesses including a restaurant, a gift shop, artist studios and two art galleries. She approached the building owners, Bob and Bev Hunt, with the idea for “Unchained Art,” after she received that letter several years ago.
They loved it.
Poe long has organized dances and helped with other events in the Creative Arts and Event Center, and the Hunts felt confident in her ability to add organizing an art exhibit to her résumé.
“She is very passionate about it. She has worked really hard to develop this as a positive thing for individuals who will eventually be re-entering society,” Bob Hunt said.
Once the idea was approved by the Hunts, the next step was to bring in the art. Poe contacted Michael Miller, the recreation director at the Wabash Valley Correctional Facility near Terre Haute. He got on board right away.
The first “Unchained Art” exhibit was conducted in July of 2012 with 25 pieces of art by about a dozen different artists. It was a huge success, she said. The artists are not permitted to sell their work — inmates can’t make money while behind bars — but the event raised $350 in donations, which were used to purchase 75 art kits for the inmates to continue their hobby.
Since that first year, Poe has continued to host the exhibit and has expanded it to include other correctional facilities in Indiana. “Unchained Art” is now in its fourth year of exhibiting artwork done by prisoners from four Indiana prisons, including the Rockville Women’s Prison.
The Hunts knew from the beginning the event would not be without controversy, but they felt it was worth pursuing.
One year, a woman who attended the exhibit showed up at the Creative Arts and Event office with a stack of files detailing the crimes and sentences of each of the artists in the show.
“She said if we didn’t stop the show or tried to do it for another year, she was going to go to the mayor and the newspaper,” Poe said. “Some people only want to see them as criminals.”
Poe and the Hunts decided, going forward, the artwork would be displayed anonymously, with the artists’ names on the back of their pieces instead of the front where people might identify individual inmates and remember their crimes.
“We’re not trying to sensationalize it in any way. We’re not trying to glorify what they’ve done,” Hunt said. “Ninety percent of these people will be back among us, and if they have a hobby like art, then they’ll be better acclimated to be society. This is good for the prisoners, but it’s good for everybody.”
Poe’s efforts on behalf of the prisoners and their art continue. She will accept donations for inmate art supplies throughout the run of the show.
Poe looks at the artists as regular people. For some, prison time resulted from one wrong decision or a moment of bad judgment.
“What if we were all judged by the worst mistake of our lives?” Poe said.
Some people who are inspired by the exhibit have asked to donate art supplies, but Poe said it’s easier if they just donate money because there are lots of rules regarding what kinds of materials prisoners can use. For example, all the artwork in the show is done with pencil and colored pencil. Any paints used by prisoners have to be nontoxic.
The art arrives unframed — prisoners can’t have access to glass — and it is up to Poe and the friends who give her a hand to get all the art into frames and hung. Some frames are purchased, and some are donated.
Poe has gotten creative funding the exhibit through the years.
“Sometimes I tell my dance students to bring in a frame instead of paying for a dance,” Poe said.
Although Poe has not been to any of the prisons or been in contact with any inmates, her friend reports that many of the inmates put their awards and ribbons above their beds.
“Because of the environment they’re in, they don’t ever want to be perceived as soft or sentimental, but when you see their tags hanging above their bed, you know it means something,” Poe said.
This exhibit, which hangs through Dec. 18, is free and open to the public during open hours at the Creative Arts and Event Center.
“Unchained Art” hangs through December 18. The exhibit is free and open to the public during open hours at the Creative Arts and Event Center, 2 W. Main St. Donations, which will go to inmate art supplies, are welcome through the run of the show.