Behind bars, art comes from inside the Pen

Alyssa Fairbanks

“Art from the Inside,” a unique show featuring artwork created by inmates at the Washington State Penitentiary, is currently showing at the Steven’s Gallery in Reid Campus Center. Joanna Swan, student co-curator for the gallery, assembled the show, which will be on display until March 6.  

The exhibit features art from six different inmates who work with diverse media. The fifteen pieces include black and white graphite drawings, colored pencil drawings, paper creations, a hand-made and painted raw-hide ceremonial drum of the Coville Tribe, a woven sea grass basket and   hand-made stuffed animals.  

All of the art demonstrates refined technical skill and artistic emotion. Specific pieces, such as the vivid colored pencil Spider-Man, show a lingering connection with the world outside the Penitentiary.  

Swan hopes the exhibit will cause people to remember that the Penitentiary is only a few miles away.

“The Penitentiary houses so many inmates right outside of Walla Walla, and yet seems so far away from the Whitman campus,” said Swan

The choice to put together a show of inmate art was Swan’s way of bringing a new and often forgotten group’s creativity to light.  

“I was interested in the art and creations that come from such a marginalized population in our society,” said Swan.  

While admitting her bias as a studio art major, Swan said “I see art as an indispensable aspect of life. Creation and production often bring one closest to finding a concrete meaning or expression of elements otherwise ineffable. I hope that this exhibit will not only demonstrate the universality of art and creation within our society, but also the potential for beauty and expression in the most unlikely of places.”    

Swan put together this exhibit with the help of Dave Hillyard, the Program coordinator of the Hobby/Craft Program at the Washington State Penitentiary.  

“I called the Penitentiary with a blind hope I could contact someone involved in some sort of craft/arts program, and got in touch with Dave Hillyard,” said Swan. “He’s worked in the system for years and his experience was incredibly helpful.”  

Hillyard gathered and chose which pieces to display and brought them to Whitman for Swan to display.

The Hobby/Craft program at the Penitentiary has only recently been resumed with a compromised budget due to loss of funding in the past several years.  

“Also, it’s pretty much a fact that the arts get cut first anytime there’s a shortage of funding and sure enough, this program was definitely hit hardest at the Pen,” said Swan. “It’s only recommenced recently.”  

In a written statement that accompanies the show, Hillyard said, “In addition to manufacturing license plates and road signs, inmates are given the opportunity to work in the Hobby/Craft Building, where the exhibited pieces originate.”

It is easy to question the necessity of such a program for inmates, which is why Hillyard hopes this exhibit will demonstrate the creativity within all people, no matter their circumstance.  

“My hope is that this exhibit from the Washington State Penitentiary communicates the human potential and creative impetus within us all. The ability to create beauty and import meaning into one’s creations exists universally. ‘Art from the Inside’ showcases the important of opportunity to create and express, a provision that ought to be available to all as a basic freedom,” wrote Hillyard.  

For now, viewers can glimpse at a “view from the inside” while wondering about the stories behind each individual piece of art.