How LGBTQ Prisoners Use Art to Survive Incarceration

At an exhibit of works by LGBTQ prisoners opening tonight called On the Inside, the stories of a twice-marginalized population are put front and center.

by Peter Moskowitz
05 November 2016, 4:00am

A work by Tony, a prisoner in Nevada, titled 'Prison is Worse for Some.' Courtesy of Black and Pink

A work by Tony, a prisoner in Nevada, titled 'Prison is Worse for Some.' Courtesy of Black and Pink

There are 1.56 million people currently incarcerated in state and federal prisons in the US. At 716 incarcerations per 100,000 people, America has the dubious distinction of having the highest percentage of its citizens imprisoned out of any nation with more than 500,000 residents—higher than Rwanda, Russia, and China. For LGBTQ people, the situation is even worse. According to a recent report, nearly 8 percent of state and federal prisoners identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual, a rate nearly twice that of the general national population. And 16 percent of trans and gender nonconforming respondents to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey say they have spent time in prison, over three times the rate of the general population.

LGBTQ Americans aren't only more likely to end up in prisons—once inside, they're subject to endemic levels of physical and sexual violence, both at the hands of fellow prisoners and from prison guards. Yet people on the outside rarely hear their stories. According to some activists, that silence allows their isolation and abuse to continue unchecked.

A new art exhibit is hoping to break it.

Tonight, the LGBTQ prisoner advocacy group Black and Pink is debuting an exhibition of artwork by incarcerated LGBTQ artists called On the Inside. At New York's Abrons Art Center, several dozen works will be on display, ranging from portraiture drawn on the back of envelopes to watercolor drawings made with illicitly obtained materials. The themes are diverse, but they all serve one purpose: trying to break down the barriers between the lived experience of LGBTQ prisoners and how outsiders perceive it.

"We want people to see the artists for who they are," said Jason Lydon, community minister for Black and Pink. "We want people to see that when you lock people up, they're real people with real talents and interests, and we want to use their art to build a connection to them."

'Acceptance,' a work by a prisoner named Stevie. Courtesy of Black and Pink

Of course, creating an art show with currently incarcerated individuals presents its own challenge. The first step was to put out a call for art, so Black and Pink placed an announcement in its monthly newspaper, distributed free of charge to more than 10,000 LGBTQ prisoners a month. The organization offered to compensate each participant for postage costs and put $50 into its commissary account for accepted works. Over the course of a few years, the group received more than 4,000 submissions.

"I was so surprised at the volume," said Tatiana von Furstenberg, who helped fund and curate the exhibit. "Every time I'd go to the PO box there'd be 200 more submissions. There's no internet really in prisons, so anything beyond people seeing it in the newspaper was all word-of-mouth."

All participants in the exhibit are identified by their first names only for two reasons: It's illegal to run a business from prison, so their $50 commissary payment could lead to disciplinary action, and many could be endangered by disclosing their gender identity or sexuality.

Most of the submitted artworks arrived on standard US letter-size printer paper, which is often available to purchase through commissaries. Most are drawn with ink—in many prisons, prisoners aren't even allowed to have pens, so they must draw with the thin, bendy ink tubes from the inside of pens. Coloring gets complicated; some prisons sell watercolors, but in others, inmates will melt magazines to create dyes. It's clear that much of the artwork on display at the show is made with illicit materials, said Lydon.

Though the themes of the exhibit vary, two main threads emerge: what prison feels like, and what it takes away from you. In the first category are self-portraits, sparse drawings of solitary confinement, abstractions made of cell bars. In one particularly powerful image by a Nevada prisoner named Tony, titled A Self-Portrait (below) dozens of masked, featureless prisoners stand in a cramped room with bars behind them, seeming to stare out at the drawing's viewer. The work, whether intentionally or not, recalls some of the Holocaust's most haunting photography. In the image's center, one man stands above the crowd, naked, their penis exposed, their arms to their side, their eyes expressionless. One gets the sense that they're transitioning, halfway between being human and becoming one of the faceless creatures that surround them.

'A Self-Portrait,' by Nevada prisoner Tony. Courtesy of Black and Pink

In the second category are sensual self-portraits and works that depict sex, uninhibited sexuality and queer pride—everything you can't do or feel in prison. Carrie, an artist imprisoned in Texas, wrote that her self-portrait was about showing "my feeling of inner-beauty as a woman on the inside. If she could show you herself, this would be her face." An artist named Mike imprisoned in Florida sent in a super hero-themed picture, writing "The LGBT voice has become so strong that it illuminated and powered the rainbow-colored hair of the hero, who had been weakened in exile for over a century. Bound in chains, she felt the surging Rainbow Energy, rose up, and finally broke the chains."

The exhibit is also meant to show how art operates as a financial and psychological lifeline for artists.

Jennifer Mayo, 38, was imprisoned in Texas from 2009 to 2015. As it does for many prisoners, art became her way to survive on the inside.

"That's how I did my time," she said. "I would stay focused on art and not get distracted. I don't know what else I would have done if I didn't have it."

Mayo would use whatever she could find to make her works. Some prisoners at her facility had access to a hobby shop, from which they'd smuggle out colored pencils that Mayo would then buy with stamps or coffee. Its commissary also sold packs of watercolor paint, not unlike that used by schoolchildren; Mayo would use a toothbrush as a paint brush, a razor blade to contour pieces of paper into sculptures, and powdered milk as glue to hold it together. She made a few pieces for herself, but most to sell. Her family cut her off when she entered prison, so she used her art to buy soap and other commissary basics. Other prisoners would commission her to make 3D greeting cards and portraits of themselves, their lovers, or of their kids.

"If you can do good portraits, you can charge an arm and a leg," she said. "But at one point I thought, 'If I have to draw another person's ugly little kid again, I'm outta here.'"

Mayo now lives in Corpus Christi on a sailboat and works at a potato chip distributor (I could hear the sound of crinkling plastic bags during our phone call). She still makes art on the side; an author who lives on the boat across from hers commissioned her to illustrate his book about mermaids. She's trying to get back into more personal work, but she's busy with her job and life. "Now that I don't have to do it, I do it less," she said.

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