Inside Out | Arts News | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

Arts + Life » Arts News

Inside Out

State of the Arts


Published February 2, 2005 at 5:00 p.m.

Art shows that heighten awareness are nothing new, especially in the home state of Bread and Puppet. But prison food? That will be on the menu during the 'con'-sciousness-raising reception next Tuesday for a touring exhibit called "Prison Arts" at Johnson State College. The stopover at Julian Scott Memorial Gallery is brief -- February 7 to 12 -- but it may help to deter JSC students from a life of crime. And not just because, as in the slammer, the jelly sandwiches are missing the peanut butter.

"Prison Arts" features works by 20 to 30 inmates from across the country, and is presented by the Prisons Foundation of Washington, D.C. The connection to Johnson? Gallery Director Leila Bandar's brother, Omar. At age 18 he was sentenced to nearly a year in jail, Bandar says. Afterwards he pursued an education and is now getting a graduate degree at Johns Hopkins. "He feels like he was one of the lucky ones," she says.

Omar became a volunteer for the Prisons Foundation after his release. Now, says Bandar, "He helps people reeducate themselves and build up their self-image."

Showing, and selling, artwork can do wonders for the self-esteem of an untrained, "outsider" artist inside prison walls, she suggests. "When I think of outsider or folk art, I think of something really human," Bandar says. "A word like 'prison' has an emotional charge, and we forget that [prisoners] are people. The work is coming from a very human and passionate, sometimes desperate, place."

The art on tour is diverse: nature works, self-portraits, memories from the outside, wrenching depictions of life behind bars. Some of the artists have short sentences, as Omar did; others are in for the long haul -- even on death row.

The postcard for the reception also promises "prison music" -- from a CD produced by current and former inmates. Bet it doesn't sound like "Jailhouse Rock."

You might expect references to Abu Ghraib prison in "All Bush No Trees," the current exhibit at Burlington's E1 Studio, but no. Within the cozy quarters of this seven-person collective -- behind Speeder & Earl's on Pine Street -- simply getting four more years of Bush is scandalous enough. From their scurrilous references to the war to suspicions cast on the election, these works reveal a group of artists who really, really don't like this president.

"It's a celebration and a blasphemy of political art," says glass artist Terry Zigmund. "We decided to do it because everyone here is progressive and we've all done our share of political art, both before and since the election." Very few venues in the area are willing to "touch this stuff," she notes -- but not for lack of an audience. The response was enthusiastic at the show's reception two weeks ago, Zigmund says. "I think people were very surprised to see such a diversity of work. They asked when we were going to do something like this again."

Wylie Garcia -- whose Cinderella-esque dress made from the Stars and Stripes is a highlight of this show -- says a future collective show may have an antiwar theme. But first, they'll do an exhibit honoring Women's History Month in March, perhaps addressing threats to Roe v. Wade. They'll decide at their next "more-or-less monthly" meeting with the other E1 artists, who range in age from 22 to 50-plus: jewelers Christy Mitchell and Christina Conant, painters Charles Norris-Brown and Sage Tucker-Ketcham, and sculptor Don Ramey. Exhibits are open to the public, relying on call-to-artist listings and word of mouth. Zigmund says the generic email address in their notices helps keep the group semi-anonymous -- to welcome more than their own friends.

Garcia notes that although artists throughout history have made political art, she believes the current climate in this country discourages it. "To my mind, [art is] a reflection of and reaction to what's going on in the world," she says. "All Bush No Trees" is E1's third exhibit since the collective formed last fall, but the first with a protest theme. It clearly won't be the last. Don't tell Homeland Security.

All the film accolades this time of year have inspired us to hand out a couple of local awards. But not for movies. No, these are utterly arbitrary. The first is a "Making a Point" award to Vermont Stage Company for the most unusual fundraising idea we've ever heard: acupuncture. For everyone who agrees to get needled this Friday or Saturday, the practitioners at Touchstone Healing Arts in South Burlington will donate $50 to the beleaguered thespians. Now, that's a hard act to follow.

But Megan Humphrey comes close. Our second prize is an "Oh, Henry!" award to this Burlington resident for cutting off 18 inches of hair for Locks of Love, a nonprofit that makes wigs for children with medical hair loss. Humphrey, owner of Sweet Basil Cards, is inviting people to sponsor each inch of hair lopped off; the funds will go to her other favorite cause: the Champlain Senior Center. Potential donors, call Humphrey at 864-7528. If you just want to watch, go to Stephen & Burns next Monday morning at 11.