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WUWM's Teran Powell reports on race and ethnicity in southeastern Wisconsin.

'Art saved their lives.' MIAD exhibition showcases the work of Wisconsin's incarcerated people

art hanging on a wall
Teran Powell
"Untitled" by Stephen Jay Larson

An exhibition titled "Art Against the Odds," on display at the Milwaukee Institute for Art & Design, features work by 65 artists incarcerated in 20 different Wisconsin prisons.

On the lower level of MIAD, I meet Debra Brehmer in the Frederick Layton Gallery, where the exhibition is open through March 11. Brehmer is the gallery director of the Portrait Society Gallery of Contemporary Art, which organized and curated the show.

"Art Against the Odds" was over two years in the making. To get participants, the groundwork involved sending letters to the prisons requesting the work of incarcerated individuals. It involved some phone calls, word of mouth and mention in The Community Newsletter – a popular publication in Wisconsin prisons.

Brehmer says to her knowledge, a show of this scale has never been done in Wisconsin.

Almost all of the artists did not have any art experience prior to their incarceration.

"Art is such a great vehicle to open conversations. It’s not polarized, it’s not loaded. People come in and you don’t walk in right away with all these thoughts about how you feel about the criminal justice system or the prison system. You walk in and you go, you look at the work and you feel what the work is communicating and from there conversations seem to evolve," she says.

The show is divided into six themes and features about 250 pieces of artwork, including portraits, sculpture, knitting and beadwork. And there are a couple of room-sized installations too.

Debra Bremer holds a greeting card titled 'Forever Yours' by Justin Sloan.
Teran Powell
Debra Bremer holds a greeting card titled "Forever Yours" by Justin Sloan.

Brehmer gives me a tour of the gallery.

Our first stop is the section "Alone: Solitary Confinement." Brehmer says artists completed most of the work while they were in solitary confinement.

Like Nate Lindell who spent 15 years in solitary. He drew detailed images of the layout of the cell with notes of what it was like.

"These beautiful, very tender drawings that you know, there’s limited materials; you get a rubber pencil and a couple of sheets of paper every few days so you can almost get a sense of how precious the pencil and the piece of paper are to him as he’s recording his situation," Brehmer explains.

A few steps ahead of us is a wall covered in satellite images of the 20 Wisconsin prisons where the artists live.

Then we come to one of the room-sized installations — a solitary confinement cell built from the artist Dominic Marak’s drawings. He detailed everything from where the light switches and emergency buttons were, to the measurements of everything in the cell.

"And on this drawing, he writes that he was in solitary confinement for seven out of eight months in 2001 to 2002. 'I received one book a week ,which I would finish in one or two days leaving the other six days of listening to the radio and to write,'" she reads.

One of the spaces that really sticks out to me is the section called "Scarcity of Materials."

"Because most prison artists don’t have broad access to materials, they have to be very careful finding them, reserving them and maybe being innovative in figuring out how to make art out of unconventional materials," Brehmer says.

The section included knitted hats, purses and scarves. Picture frames made out of colored paper and potato chip bags.

In the 'Scarcity of Materials' room of the exhibition, Debra Brehmer points to the silver material used to make picture frames that is actually the inside of a potato chip bag.
Teran Powell
In the "Scarcity of Materials" room, Debra Brehmer points to the silver material used to make picture frames — it is actually the inside of a potato chip bag.

And there’s a fully operative five-foot-tall ferris wheel made entirely out of paper by Joseph Hickerson

"So, this ferris wheel is made out of 902 sheets of paper. Paper that is rolled, sometimes multiple pieces of paper rolled together for strength. And he figured out how to put in a weight and a crank made out of paper; the weight is actually a shampoo bottle filled with sand. And it runs for 10 minutes if you crank it all the way up," she says.

Neven's Wheel/Ferris Wheel by Joseph Hickerson's
Teran Powell
"Neven's Wheel/Ferris Wheel" by Joseph Hickerson.

One of the artists, Joshua Gresl, who also had a few pieces in the Scarcity of Materials section was there as I toured with Brehmer.

We stood in front of one of his pieces with what he calls, “Milk Monsters.” The monsters, which covered an entire wall, are made of torn up milk cartons from each place he’s been incarcerated.

Joshua Gresl poses in front of his wall of milk monsters.
Teran Powell
Joshua Gresl poses in front of his wall of milk monsters.

"It started probably over 10 years ago when I was in Milwaukee County Jail," he said as he pointed to a few Dean milk cartons. "One day I was just drinking my milk and I saw a little face in the milk carton, and I started ripping it apart and made this little creature. And then from then every time I had a milk carton, I just started making different ones."

Gresel says each monster has its own personality.

"It was something I did to kind of keep my mind occupied and keep my hands occupied especially being in just a little cell and not having that much movement. I just needed something to do to not go crazy," he says.

On the wall of milk monsters, there are a couple of dogs – Gresl says one is in the likeness of an old family dog. Another looked to me, like a wizard with a pointed hat, a beard and a walking stick, and I spotted a butterfly, with apple stems as the antennas.

Gresl says there are even more milk monsters than the ones in this exhibition.

There’s also a framed work of his – he says a lot of people miss it because it’s small – but it’s a torn sugar packet with a drawing of his interpretation of Godzilla breathing fire and people running.

Joshua Gresl's 'Godzilla.'
Teran Powell
Joshua Gresl's 'Godzilla.'

Gresl says art helped him through some really rough times.

There’s another cell-sized installation in the "Correspondence & Connection" space. I step behind black curtains into a small room with letters plastered around the walls. There’s audio playing of the letters being read.

"One thing we realized in doing this project was that letter writing, correspondence is so crucial to the mental health of anyone who is incarcerated. It is the connection the outside world and it means everything," Brehmer says.

The audio is of actors from the nonprofit organization The Feast of Crispian. The group brings professional actors and veterans together to strengthen the emotional resources they need to overcome trauma and reintegration issues.

At the end of the tour, there’s a table and chairs where visitors can sit and write letters to the artists. Brehmer says more than 200 letters have already been written.

She says 95% of the incarcerated artists featured in this show will be released. "I think what this show speaks to very forcefully, whoever you are, is that we wanna make sure that they’re released as individuals who have some confidence, some self-esteem and who believe that there might be some place for them in the world and in a way for them to give something to the world."

Brehmer says a number of the artists say art saved their lives.


Teran is WUWM's race & ethnicity reporter.
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