Imagine having your work in a museum but never being able to see it.
For several women in the high-security York Correctional Institution in Niantic, Connecticut, this is the reality. Their work comprises the Women of York: Shared Dining exhibit, which opened August 7 at the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art in the Brooklyn Museum and is the first at the museum to feature work produced entirely by incarcerated individuals.
Women of York: Shared Dining was born in 2013, when activist, art lover, and historian Elizabeth A. Sackler--who remembers sleeping in front of the White House in the 70s to protest civil rights--met Joseph Lea, a now-retired librarian at the York prison, when all ten of the women featured were inmates. (Since then, two, Lisette Oblitas-Cruz and Kelly Donnelly, have been released.) After taking stock of their shared interests in the arts and prison reform, Sackler and Lea paired up to run a series of art workshops at the facility.
On the first day of workshop, Sackler brought with her a PowerPoint presentation on Judy Chicago's The Dinner Party, an iconic piece of 70s feminist art that's been housed at the Brooklyn Museum since 2007. A series of banners leading to a triangle-shaped table with 39 place settings, each of which honors a historical female figure, The Dinner Party was a collaborative project between Chicago and numerous artists; according to curatorial assistant Stephanie Weissberg, Chicago's massive banquet piece was an effort to "reframe what history would look like if women were on an equal field as men." Put literally, The Dinner Party explores what it means for women to have a place at the table.
The inmates in the York workshop soon began calling themselves the "Women of York" and designing their own plates inspired by Chicago. After one participant suggested they make a table and submit it to the Community Partners in Action annual Prison Arts Exhibition in Hartford, Connecticut, they worked on the project for six months, during which Sackler made regular visits.
"I have never been with a group of women who are so without façade or intent to impress," Sackler said in a phone interview. "I was very impressed with the respect and gratitude with which they utilized their tools, the paint, the paper, their thoughtfulness, and the way we worked through challenges."
After the project was displayed at the Prison Arts Exhibition in May 2014, Sackler, the founder of the Sackler Center For Feminist Art, approached the Brooklyn Museum about having the project featured alongside Chicago's original work. The Museum accepted, and began the task of figuring out how to transport the set of intricate plates and fragile styrofoam cups from the Prison Arts Exhibition in Hartford to Brooklyn.
The Woman Of York: Shared Dining exhibit mirrors Chicago's original piece but adds unique elements that speak to life behind bars. The table is also a triangle, though there are only ten place settings instead of 39. Instead of goblets, there are the plastic sporks and styrofoam cups the women are given at the mess hall. The women honored include historical and religious figures like the Virgin Mary and Eve; celebrities like Princess Diana and Nascar driver Danica Patrick; inspirational figures like Malala Yousafzai; fictional characters like Juliet Capulet; and the women's own relatives. For her Juliet Capulet place setting, Chastity carved a knife out of soap she bought at the commissary; the inmate who sewed the triangular runners for the table (or "millennium panels," also featured in Chicago's work) used staples instead of needles because sharp objects aren't permitted inside the facility.
Perhaps the most poignant and touching tribute is the one designed by Lisette Oblitas-Cruz, 33, one of the two women who have been released since the project began. Cruz was sentenced to four-and-a-half years in 2009 for a DUI and misconduct with a motor vehicle; Cruz hit the car of 77-year-old Phyllis Porter, who later died from her injuries. Cruz chose Porter as the woman to honor in the place setting she designed.
With the exception of Cruz, whose conviction is part of her work, the exhibit intentionally does not reveal the artists' last names, aside from those who have since been released, and does not mention the reason they were incarcerated. "It's not about that," said Weissberg.
In an audio recording made by documentary photographer Susan Meiselas and former Cisco executive-turned-philanthropist Catherine Muther that can be heard through headphones adjacent to the exhibit, an almost tearful-sounding Cruz explains how Porter, who owned a flower shop, loved gardens and music, which is why she included those elements in her plate. Cruz said she hopes she's created a garden in which Porter will forever be happy.
"For incarcerated women to have an opportunity to express what's going on internally for them--it's a way to bring out in three dimensions the things that are within," said Sackler. "I think that's true for all people. [Art] is healing. It is certainly transformative, and that is true whether you're behind bars or outside."
On September 13, the Sackler Center will hold a closing reception and panel including Cruz and fellow former inmate Kelly Donnelly. Best-selling author Wally Lamb, who has a run a prison-writing program at York since 1999, will also appear as a panelist. Meanwhile, Lea, the former librarian at the prison, plans to take the Dinner Party program to women's prisons and Scotland and England after seeing its success in York.
For Sackler, who recently helped initiate the Brooklyn Museum's States of Denial series--which examines incarceration through exhibits, discussions, and performances--the most powerful part of the exhibition is what it gives the women who participated in it.
"Whether it's [through] education or art or writing...for anyone who has been found guilty of a crime and is incarcerated for any period of time, the opportunity to keep your mind going--to keep your creative juices flowing, express yourself, to learn, to absorb--is essential in one's humanity," Sackler said.
Women of York: Shared Dining will be on display at the Brooklyn Muesum through September 13.