Incarcerated Artists have a Chance to Share Their Work and Stories Through an Exhibition They Themselves Cannot Attend

Published October 18th 2023
By Sophia Del Rio

Warden Freddy Garrido and Officer Anolo Vaitai casually walked into the Fort Worth Community Art Center and struck up a conversation with newly-hired, Exhibitions Manager Robert Long in July of 2022. Garrido asked if the Fort Worth Community Arts Center would consider hosting an art exhibition of inmates of the Federal Medical Center (FMC) Fort Worth.

The partnership between the Bureau of Prisons and Arts Fort Worth began. Long accepted the invitation to visit with the inmates knowing that undertaking the exhibition was risky. Garrido and Vaitai were asked to comment, but due to Bureau of Prisons policy, unable to speak to the press at the time this article was written. “Warden Garrido was an enthusiastic supporter of the talent of the artists, and the positive impact exhibiting the works could have,” said Long. Garrido will retire from his position from the Bureau of Federal Prisons in December of 2023. Long hopes the new Warden will be as enthusiastic about the partnership and want to continue.

Exhibitions Manager Robert Long stands beside Federal Bureau of Prisons Officer Anolo Vaitai at the opening reception of Looking Within II. Photo by Sophia del Rio

At the time of Long’s initial visit in 2022 to the FMC, it was the tail-end of the pandemic. Inmates were sequestered to their cells and their interactions were restricted to suppress the spread of Covid 19. The arts and crafts room had been repurposed as a sickbay for inmates sick with Covid. Despite all this, inmates were still making art, and Long was determined to help the artists showcase their work.

There were concerns about whether or not the exhibition would see the light of day. Long became quickly acquainted with how grindingly slow communications and requests move in the Federal Prison System, particularly processes that involve connecting inmates to the outside world. The inmates themselves shared with Long that they didn’t believe the exhibition would ever happen.

“Last year we had 21 artists, all the work was made during the quarantine, and they had limited access to materials. This year has 28 artists represented. It’s also different in that the inmates have full access to the crafts room. The work made for this year’s exhibitions have expanded to include wet media, leather goods, and sculpture,” Long says.

Exhibitions Manager Robert Long organizes the artworks for installation of Looking Within II, the final layout of the exhibition was designed by Arts Fort Worth Assistant Preparator Gabe Gonzalez. Photo by Sophia del Rio

Long attributes the increase in participating artists this year, with over 100 artworks photographed and documented and submitted by inmate Brett Gonzalez, directly to the success of the first Looking Within exhibition, despite the fact that he incarcerated artists were unable to attend due to their sentencing, and their families, as well, were not able to attend due to the fact that they live in areas far away from were the artists are imprisoned.

Long struggled with how to reach back to the artists and took it upon himself to create a digital catalog of the exhibition and share it with the inmates. “The inmates have email access to a designated list they provide that they are allowed to interact, and the link was sent out to the families,” he stated. Long received numerous thank-you notes from the incarcerated artists expressing their gratitude to Long going to lengths to enable them to see the exhibition of their work.

“The artists were excited and appreciated the exhibition and seeing the exhibition digitally. It created a sort of acknowledgement of their existence and hope that they are not just persons that are shunned, and shut out from the rest of the world,” said Long.

Garrido and Vaitai could and did attend the opening of the first Looking Within exhibition. “There was good dialogue between the gallery attendant and the Warden during the opening. The public was asking a lot of questions and curious about the work and the artists,” Long recalls.

The running title of the exhibition series, Looking Within, was chosen for its double meaning. “You are getting a glimpse into the life of these prisoners, but also there is the possibility of introspection. The artists are taking that time to look inward at their lives and how they can better themselves, but also the outside community is looking into the prison and seeing that person inside the prison,” says Long.

The exhibition is designed by Long with the intention of showing the artwork without advertising that it is created by inmates. “When a person walks into the exhibition, and engages with the artwork first. For the community I don't want it to become a voyeuristic viewing of a marginalized community in Fort Worth,” says Long. The viewers enter the space and observe the artwork, but won’t know that the work is by incarcerated persons unless they read the exhibition statement on the wall. There is also a binder on a podium nearby with each artists’ statement.

A visitor looks at incarcerated artist Renua Mondragon’s pencil work located above the exhibition binder. Photo by Sophia del Rio

Natalie Atkinson, a local Fort Worth resident, attended Looking Within II during the Fort Worth Art Dealers Association, Fall Gallery Night, and reflected, “As someone who has never faced incarceration, it's honestly quite hard for me to actually understand what the experience must be like, but I think my large take-away was that art would feel like quite a relief and escape from being unable to change your current living situation. Having an outlet seems critical to an incarcerated person's mental health.”

Long describes his careful selection process is done to benefit the artists, “I look at not only the skill but the content of the work when I am making those selections. There are aspects I feel could be detrimental in the progress of moving forward in reintegration of the community. I’ve seen things that could be perceived as a person in a prone position in portrait style work that could be perceived as lifeless. I don’t have the opportunity to engage in deeper conversation with the artist individually about each work, so I am interpreting and trying to guess how the audience may interpret the work.”

The incarcerated artists' statements can be read in the binder provided by Long on a podium near the exhibition statement posted on the wall. Some speak of their experience being incarcerated while other statements discuss the artists’ exploration of materials. Incarcerated artist Carl Masters describes his work, Artist with His Daughter, as a “watercolor image of a scene from my life, bringing my daughter to the sunflower fields of Kansas. This effect was achieved using ink as a base layer for the black as the original photo had high contrast. Then I used watercolor to wash in the various colors.” Masters says he began drawing at the young age of three, and had not stopped. For the last five years he has focused on portraiture.

Incarcerated artist Carl Masters, Artist with his daughter, was on display. Photo by Sophia del Rio

Atkinson stated, “I was touched by the personal stories that these incarcerated people were willing to share - some of family, some of life experience, some of their nationality or ethnic background. It is important to remember that while most of us go about our lives with them being unseen or invisible to us, these imprisoned people are still humans with feelings and lives that are worthy of acknowledging,” she remarked.

The work in Looking Within II is diverse. James Sparkman’s sculpture, Symphony of Sound (banjo), looks like a lifesize, playable banjo. A viewer wouldn’t be able to tell it is constructed from cardboard, watercolor paint, dental floss and pencil without close inspection.

“These artists in the federal medical center are members of the Fort Worth Community and I would say they are the most without opportunity, there could be argument that these people have done something wrong and they should be punished and not have opportunity, but the majority of the incarcerated artists will be back in the community, whether in Fort Worth or the United States as a whole,” says Long.

The Arts Fort Worth has hosted over 200 artists thus far in the year 2023. The Community Art Center is located in the Cultural District of Fort Worth and once housed the Modern Museum of Art. Long has been working to showcase more community artists by building programing and changing application processes. He hopes to expand his work with the incarcerated artists in the future through professional development workshops and art-based book drives.

“Art is a powerful tool in the rehabilitation and reintegration of prisoners by promoting personal growth, emotional healing, skill development, and a sense of belonging. It can help individuals rediscover their creative potential and find positive outlets for their talents and energies, which are essential elements in successfully reintegrating into the community and reducing the likelihood of reoffending,” - Robert Long.

Looking Within II was on display at the Forth Worth Community Art Center through October 3rd 2023. A list of included works can be viewed here

More information about the Fort Worth Community Center's Projects and events can be found at their website.

Sophia del Rio is a visual artist working in North Texas. She began her career as a choreographer, and quickly moved into other art forms. She is expert in printmaking and ceramics, and continues to expand her own body of work while engaging with the local art scene through attending events, writing reviews and local politics.