Exhibition provides a glimpse inside Iowa prisons

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“A Glimpse Inside: Art Produced in Iowa Prisons” Opening Reception

Little Village — Friday, Dec. 15 at 5 p.m.

Drawings in the ‘A Glimpse Inside,’ currently on view at Little Village. — photo by Jordan Sellergren

An ongoing art exhibition displayed in the Little Village Iowa City office challenges society’s conceptions of people living in prisons. “A Glimpse Inside: Art Produced in Iowa Prisons,” which will be on display through January, is a collection of works produced by Iowa prisoners, including many from the Oakdale and Mt. Pleasant facilities.

An opening reception for the gallery, which is co-sponsored by Inside Out Reentry Community, will be held Friday, Dec. 15 starting at 5 p.m. in the Little Village office (623 S Dubuque St).

The pieces were gathered by Doren Walker, who said he originally started collecting works to sell on his release, but was ultimately able to land a job and had grown too attached to the artworks to sell them off.

“I started to see them actually as a great tool to use to help try to get the word out that there’s good people locked up,” Walker said.

“Most people their only idea of prison is what they see in TV or movies, and that’s pretty harsh. Thankfully Iowa prisons are nothing like that,” Walker said. “Most people have never seen prison art and think it all has to be gangster stuff, but there’s a lot of very creative and emotional pieces that you can tell, ‘Wow, someone really put their whole heart and spirit in this.’ And if we use this art as a tool, it most definitely brings awareness.”

Mike Cervantes, executive director of Inside Out, said that in addition to the nonprofit’s primary mission to help people find housing, jobs and support when they are returning to the community, the organization also works to engage the community at large with returning individuals.

“It helps people in the community gain a greater understanding that these are people who made mistakes but, just like anyone else, they are trying to build a life. It gets back to the idea that a person is more than their worst mistake,” Cervantes said.

He said he hopes events like this exhibition help employers and landlords to “look past those mistakes to see the person as they are now, and then decide whether or not to hire or rent to that person.”

Of the pieces in the gallery, several were commissioned works of things in Walker’s life that have brought him joy. Walker said a lot of people in prison create art, such as greeting cards and portraits, for personal income, to pay for nicer hygiene products like Crest toothpaste or name brand deodorants, or to trade for tokens for soda or coffee.

“That’s a big thing in art in prison,” he said. “A lot of prison artists draw portraits of wives, girlfriends, children, things like that.”

One of those commissioned drawings is of an antique John Deere tractor set against a red barn and setting sun.

“The antique tractor [drawing] actually started out based on an antique tractor that I used to ride around like a toy,” he said. “It wasn’t for farming or anything. A couple of my friends and I bought them, and we always wanted to drive them in the big tractorcade, but we were always working. So we drove them around like big tricycles and just played with them like toys.”

But art can also serve as a therapeutic activity.

“For a lot of people it’s a positive way to release frustration or the feeling of being abandoned, to create things to help with self-worth,” Walker said.

Walker said he was “shocked and stunned” when he saw his collection hanging on the walls.

“I’ve been around it for all these years, so you get kind of used to it, kind of numb to it. But when I was starting to get it all compiled at my home, I realized it’s quite a big deal,” he said. “To me it makes a statement: what talent, what wide range. To me I see each piece as an individual.”

Walker said that, in addition to encouraging employers and landlords to give former incarcerated individuals a chance, he hopes the exhibition might inspire artists in the local community to become involved, either through mentoring prison artists or helping to organize art classes in Iowa prisons.

“Our big hope would be that we can find some local artists, perhaps someone or a group of people, who would donate time to have some art classes to help the people there learn to express themselves and feel more comfortable expressing themselves,” he said.

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