Letters & Liberation
An Art Show and Fundraiser for Prison Justice
—————————— Facebook Event
Over 40 artists from both sides of the prison walls have submitted provocative pieces utilizing ceramics, photography, textiles, silk screen, collage, stained glass, drawing, etc. There are close to 100 pieces of art up for auction benefiting the work of this local prison advocacy group. The opening and auction will take place on July 6 from 6 – 10pm with the auction closing at 9pm. The show will stay up through July 29th with gallery hours on Saturdays from 12 – 4pm.
Letters are an everyday part of being in prison or having a loved one incarcerated. Letters are instrumental in organizing for justice with people in prison. Letters are conduits for relationships. Letters can be the only tangible thread connecting people to their loved ones. And if you don’t throw those letters away for 18 years, you can collect quite a few. Inspiration for this show came when etta cetera, co-founder of Let’s Get Free, was searching for a creative way to release the hundreds and hundreds of letters she has amassed over years of maintaining friendships with people in prison and organizing for justice in the prisons. “I didn’t want to just throw them away. I like the idea of transforming them into art and letting that energy go.”
Not all of the art is made from letters. Some of the art is inspired by reading letters. Paula Levin created a ceramic bowl after reading a letter by Khalifa Diggs. The bowl is glazed on the outside weaving Khalifa’s words with prison bars, “I have seen the ancestors and I have got to get to….where?” Khalifa passed away last December after spending close to 40 years in prison. This is why people call life sentences in PA death sentences. People are dying. Let’s Get Free is one of the founding groups of the Coalition to Abolish Death by Incarceration West (CADBIWest). Part of the proceeds from last year’s benefit went to pay for traveling expenses for many members to attend CADBI’s statewide rallies, meetings with lawmakers, the juvenile lifer day at Muncy prison, hearings for juvenile lifers, and statewide strategy meetings.
Making Connections Between Border Walls and Prison Walls
The youngest participants to submit art created out of letters are Shayla (age 13) and Luz (age 10), the daughters of MartÍn Esquivel- Hernandez. On May 1st, 2016 MartÍn Esquivel-Hernandez led the annual Mayday March for Workers and Immigrant Rights in Pittsburgh. He held a large banner with his wife that read, “Not One More Deportation.” On May 2nd, 2016, MartÍn was taken by ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) at 6am in front of his family. They have not seen or hugged him since. Martin wrote this letter while he was detained for 9 months before being deported, and addressed it to ICE. His daughters Shayla and Luz redacted the letter by blocking out many words to create a new letter addressed to anyone in positions of power to stop separating families.
Shayla is tired of phone calls being the only way to be with her father. Luz barely remembers what he looks like. His wife, Alma, hasn’t seen him in over 2 years. And Alex, MartÍn’s youngest son (age 6), talks about him everyday. There is no hope for his return to the US, and his wife and children cannot visit him in Mexico. Cases like this are happening everyday, in Pittsburgh, nationwide, and worldwide. Families are being destroyed and separated. Parents are being forced to go to sleep, forever apart and without their children and families. Children are growing up in torn-apart families, surrounded by trauma. This isn’t right. Another world is possible.
[For more information on MartÍn, please this in-depth article written by Ryan Deto]
Have you ever thought about how militarized borders create open air prisons? In addition to Shayla and Luz’s letter, which demonstrates the similarities between the struggles of family members separated by prison walls and border walls, there are quite a few artists represented from México. We are thrilled to exhibit two Puebla City artists, Esmeralda Juarez and Oscar Garcia, who both designed unique linoleum cuts especially for this show. More linoleum cuts from Andrea Narno and Grabiel of the radical print shop Escuela de Cultura Popular Martires del 68 in México City. This community art space was born out of the student uprisings in 68. Lastly, from México we will feature a portrait of Mumia Abu-Jamal by Zamer, who created art in honor of Mumia Abu-Jamal’s birthday, which was celebrated in April across the world and in México City! Free Mumia!
Artists on the Inside
From Muncy prison, Amanda Hein sent a very detailed embroidery of a typewriter reading the words, “I’m writing home to tell you.” From Graterford prison, Bruce Bainbridge sent a small table with four chairs made out of brightly colored popsicle sticks. He has called this piece Let’s Have a Conversation. From Fayette Prison Todd “Hyung-Rae” Tarselli has submitted a captivating portrait of Malcolm X. In different shades of pencil, Malcolm’s face is constructed with words like “sister, community, love, strength, change, movement.”
James “Ya Ya” Hough has only one year left of his juvenile life sentence. He is returning to Pittsburgh in 2019 and hopes to pursue a career as an artist. The piece he submitted is a mixed-media painting which incorporates a peach pit. Let’s Get Free is so excited to showcase his work and we can’t wait to welcome him home.
Members of Let’s Get Free met Donna Martorano and Marsha Scaggs last summer on the first group visit to the Cambridge Springs prison. Marsha and her roomate Rachel submitted two charming tiny cross stitches one reading “Live, Love, Laugh” and the other reading “Let’s Get Free”. Donna submitted 5 pieces including two large landscape paintings and two portraits of Janet Africa, one in pencil and one in charcoal. Janet Africa is a member of the Move organization and has been in prison since the 80s. The MOVE Organization is a group of mostly black, freedom- and nature- loving activists who were living in Philadelphia from the early 1970s to early 80s. The Philadelphia police department dropped a bomb on their house from a helicopter on May 13, 1985, silencing their central figure, John Africa. Did you know that Pennsylvania incarcerates the country’s most political prisoners?
Local Artists Create for the Cause
Kiln Tender Ceramics has created a limited edition of cast ceramic prison abolitionist medallions inspired by 18th century coins made by abolitionists of slavery. Larger than a silver dollar, these ceramic pieces fit in the palm of your hand with one side reading “ Until we all are free” with hands breaking out of chains, while the other side features 3 famous abolitionists of past and present – Harriet Tubman, Angela Davis, and Patrisse Kahn-Cullors.
Jenn Gooch has created a weaving that stretches 10 feet wide utilizing over 30 letters from prisoners. While working on the piece that spells out “REDEMPTION,” Jenn posted on instagram, “ Tragic weft. Weaving with strips of letters from prisoners for @womeninprison‘s upcoming show. The heaviest thing I’ve ever woven. The weight of these words, and their sound—it’s crushing and deafening, yet paper-thin.”
Sue Abramson who used the letters from prisoners as negatives. Placing the letter in its entirety directly onto photo paper reveals compelling black and white scribblings that almost look like a new language.
Lataya Johnson, an artist from McKeesport, contributed a hanging lantern made completely with letters.
Juliette Angotti, a french photographer living in Delaware, corresponded with 5 people incarcerated in Pennsylvania and asked them three questions:
If you were a photographer or had access to a camera, what would you photograph?
What images define liberation for you?
What do you miss most from outside of prison?
They responded and Juliette took photos based on those replies. 5 photographs from this series and responses from the people incarcerated will be on display.
Lifelines is a Philadelphia based media/cultural project conducted in extensive, long-term collaboration with eight people serving Life Sentences Without Parole or Death By Incarceration sentences in Pennsylvania. Lifelines created an exhibit called How Are We Free. This visual art exhibit that explores the nature of freedom and confinement through creative collaboration between people who have been sentenced to die in prison and visual artists outside the prison walls. Lifelines is lending the exhibit several pieces to display in Pittsburgh!
Last year’s art fundraiser entitled Contraband was SO SUCCESSFUL! Over 100 pieces of art sold and $5,000 was raised. A new program called Operation Break Bread was launched connecting people in Pittsburgh with women and trans prisoners incarcerated at Cambridge Springs Prison. Cambridge Springs is 2 hours north of Pittsburgh. Since the first visit last June 24 Pittsburghers were linked with different people serving time. You can read some of the visiting chronicles on Let’s Get Free’s instagram page. Scroll down to see the visit pics- most have a reddish background. You will be able to sign up to visit women at Cambridge Springs at the art opening.
Let’s Get Free is hoping to raise another $5,000 to support our work for the next year! Please come out on July 6th from 6 – 10 pm. Auction closes at 9pm. The show will be up the whole month of July with gallery hours on Saturdays from 12 – 4pm.
Overflowing gratitude to Boom Concepts for being such a gracious host and Justseeds the radical artist cooperative headquartered in Pittsburgh, who for the 2nd year in a row has made a generous donation to this cause. Thank you to all the ARTISTS for the time, thought and care you put into submissions!!
List of Artists in no special order:
Artists from the so-called US: Sue Abramson, Alisha Wormsley, Edith Abetya, Lataya Johnson, Olivia Robinson, Jenn Gooch, Chip ‘Jetsonorama’ Thomas, Shaun Slifer, Jess X Snow, Bec Young, Mary Mack, T. Foley, Juliette Angotti, Merideth Stern, Alec Icky Dunn, Josh Macphee, Chris Amann, kiln tender ceramics, Paula Levin, etta cetera, Shayla & Luz Esquivel, Hope Amico, Ken Boe, Ally Reeves, Jane Hein, Ellen Melchiondo, Leslie Stem, Alina Del Pino, Daniel Nelson, Hannah de Plessis, Andrea Chiotti, Devon Cohen, Maybe Sadeghi
Artists from Prison in the so-called US: Marsha Scaggs, Rachel, Amanda Hein, James Yaya Hough, Todd “Hyung-Rae” Tarselli , Cuong Tran, Avis Lee, Duane Montney, Ajamu O. Iyapo, Leonard Jefferson, Bruce Bainbridge, Donna Martorano, Cinque Michael Upchurch, Andre Coltom