FOLLOW THIS: TEDx in Prison
by Kendra Hovey
A TEDx in a prison is always going to be about prison. No matter the topic, whether it’s race, food, intelligence, bikes, the big topic is prison. This is what I thought anyway, after attending four TEDx prison events. But last week while attending a 5th, I discovered that I was wrong. “Art & Conviction” had a lot to say about prison, but it had just as much and even more to say about art.
This was a TEDxSalon, which basically means a shorter day and smaller crowd. For those of us coming from the outside, the event began at the prison entrance with casual introductions and chatting as we lined up for the check-in routine (like an airport, but way, way easier) then passed through two sets of double gates, down a hallway and into the wide open space of the prison chapel. One side of the room was transformed into a pop-up art gallery with paintings, photographs, cross-stitch, knitting, pen & ink, and wood sculptures. On the other side was the TEDx stage, marked by the signature red dot carpet. In between were rows of chairs and minglers, an even split of about 150 inside and outside guests meeting and roaming in and out of conversation, until the lights dimmed and everyone took a seat.
This salon featured 3.5 talks. Two from outsiders: A poet, Aaron Conley, who met his best friend in prison and theater director Steven Anderson who said, among other things, don’t dare thank me just because I work with prisoners. The other 1.5 talks were from prisoners. Justin opened the day with a conversion story, detailing his journey from hard, steely art skeptic to art enthusiast, by way of cookies, five of them, to be precise (but more on that later). Guy gave half a talk in which he recast rap music as a force for good, and then with the other half demonstrated exactly what he meant.
The rest of the program—and most of the program—was performance: opera, a silent choir, Shakespeare, a musical, and a ballet. All of it performed, written, or directed by the guys inside.
The art on the stage, like that in the pop-up gallery, was the work of both the aspiring and the accomplished—sometimes in concert, and there’s no better example of this than the Prison Dance Theater. The four-member troupe formed in late 2013 when three men, inspired by the performance of fellow inmate (now released) and professionally trained dancer Josh Massey, asked for a dance lesson. One class led to another and then to new choreography and 4-day-a-week rehearsals in preparation for their debut at the TEDxMarionCorrectionalSalon. Uniting Massey’s perfect reach and weightless leaps with the less-controlled but “all-in” movements of the newer dancers, the original work “What Lies Beneath the Scar Tissue” had the audience enthralled and in tears.
The curators of the original and longest-standing TEDx in a prison—Dan, Wayne, Jo Dee and Naj—planned their 6th event around the arts in order to showcase the talents at the prison, but also to give the audience a break. It’s not as if a TEDx event in a prison isn’t fun; it is, but they pass out tissues for a reason. The curators thought it was time to give us a lighter, creative, joyful, more entertaining day, so when the tears flowed after this performance and throughout the day—more than at any other TEDxMCI—they were a bit surprised. But these tears were different. From a heart stirred, not broken, they are art tears.
A curious thing about art: It has always been with us, it endures in every circumstance, we can’t imagine life without it, yet, it is the only basic human need continually asked to justify its value. Thankfully we have art advocates out doing this work, even as they must use a language of dollars & cents and measurable results that can never speak to the true necessity of art. On March 14th, the incarcerated people at Marion Correctional made the case for art effectively and fully, using the entirety of language available to us—and not just the language of artistic expression. Justin, for instance, used words—linear, rational, not particularly poetic, though certainly clever, words.
After he was accused of “cookie embezzlement,” Justin was fired from his job in the kitchen prison (a miscasting, he says: it was only five and he’s really more of a grab-and-stuff cookie stealer). His unauthorized consumption landed him in a new job in the theater program, where prisoners were being enriched and educated and where art was transforming lives everyday and where he’s looking around at it all and thinking, What kind of bullshit is this? But to keep his job, he pretended until he realized he wasn’t pretending anymore.
If we must have this conversation justifying the value of art, I want Justin in it. Watch his talk (post-approval), listen to his journey, and then why not show it to your state legislator?
Art is always located somewhere—it may be a gallery a theater, the side of railcar—and that somewhere informs the art experience. When this somewhere is a prison, it really informs the experience. For outsiders, the bars doubled the poignancy; the virtuosity doubled the joy. This event was beautiful and moving, but because prisons and misconceptions go together, I want to be clear that this is not because art has some kind of transformative and transport-ive power that makes a person forget they are in prison. I think everyone knows where they are. The incarcerated find freedom behind bars in many ways. It doesn’t have to be through art. And those of us on the outside can release ourselves from the mind-trap that defines what a prison is and who prisoners are without art—though art certainly helps.
A beeline to shared humanity, art connects us. It brings us front and center to the complicated, richness, fullness and utter mystery of human existence. Incarceration (in this country) does the opposite. It is about reducing a person to one identity—prisoner—and often to one act—a crime—and to one frozen moment in time.
We know people will make art anywhere. But for an institution to foster it and share it means acknowledging and feeding the whole human being. Somehow Marion Correctional is doing this. “Art & Conviction” is proof. What might our world be like if all our institutions—our prisons, our schools, even our families—could do this too?