The Bubbler room in the Madison Public Library on Mifflin Street was flooded with paintings, writings, jewelry and music during an opening reception March 3.
From oil paintings depicting a serene day in the countryside, to pencil sketches boasting Lupe Fiasco lyrics in the background, the art was as diverse in its presentation as the audience viewing it. Moving from one side of the room to the other, there was constantly something for patrons to read, view or listen to. While some read the poems and short prose pieces that hung proudly from the back wall, others took a seat and listened to originally produced music.
Only one thing was missing — the artists.
Creativity unchained: UW affiliated program teaches humanities to local inmatesLast year, University of Wisconsin Slavic languages and literature graduate student Jose Vergara sat with his students in a circle, Read…
The “Artists in Absentia” exhibit is a collaboration between The Bubbler’s Artist-in-Residence program and the Oakhill Prison Humanities Project. Since 2005, several University of Wisconsin graduate students have been working with Oakhill Correctional Institution in Oregon, Wisconsin, to provide humanities-based classes for inmates.
In 2013, the UW Slavic department received enough grants in funding to continue the humanities program with the Oakhill inmates. One current graduate student, José Vergara, Slavic languages and literature graduate student and exhibition coordinator, said he believes the art the inmates created deserved a bigger audience.
“All [the inmates] wanted was an audience,” Vergara said to the crowd before the documentary about the exhibit’s creation premiered. “All these men wanted was someone to listen to their stories.”
In May 2011, UW graduate students and project volunteers introduced literature and writing courses, which ultimately exposed them to creativity.
The art in the exhibit covered an array of different topics, with inmates exploring themes ranging from family, masculinity and the American dream. Race was prevalent in many of the inmates’ pieces.
Local filmmaker Marc Kornblatt, who works with Refuge Films, created a documentary about the exhibition’s creation along with a web series featuring the artists.
Some of the artwork like the prose piece “Five Numbers” by Lionel W., conveyed the feeling of captivity in prison. In his work, he recounts how being an inmate has almost dehumanized him, as he is reduced to an identification number.
Throughout the night, there was a silent auction of the artists’ works. Upon request of the inmates at Oakhill, all of the proceeds from the auction will go to the art department at Malcolm Shabazz City High School.
Patrons were also invited to share their responses and reactions to the exhibit. While many were encouraged to post their thoughts along the walls of the room, people could also write something directly to the artists.
The exhibit will be on display at the Madison Public Library till March 31. In April and May it will travel to neighboring libraries.
“We’re trying our best to represent their art as it deserves to be recognized,” Vergara said. “[The art] should be recognized for what it is and its merit — not where it came from.”