A piece of painted wood in the University of Vermont’s Davis Center bears these words: “I try to remind myself that I am on the outside free looking in at my mother who is trapped in this prison. But in reality I live in a cage as well, a cage without love and affection.”
The words, written by the child of an imprisoned woman in Columbus, Ohio, pop off their makeshift canvas. They bring to mind urban graffiti, only far more poignant.
The piece is part of a work called “Inside/Outside,” one of the installations in “Interrupted Life: Incarcerated Mothers in the United States.” The exhibit, curated by historian Rickie Solinger, director of WAKEUP/Arts in New York, examines the lives of women in prison and the politics of incarceration, motherhood and welfare in this country. It landed at UVM by way of the Vermont Children’s Aid Society, Vermont Works for Women and other groups that work with imprisoned women and their children around Vermont.
The idea behind the exhibit, which has traveled exclusively to college campuses, is to interrupt the curriculum at the universities. “We want classes to discuss incarceration further,” says Denise Nagelschmidt, executive director of Vermont Children’s Aid.
“Interrupted Life” is composed of eight installations made by mothers in prison as well as by commissioned artists and children of women behind bars. A number of female inmates from Vermont contributed postcards to a large piece that’s covered in sentiments from incarcerated women across the country.
Other installations include a comic-book-esque piece that outlines current prison statistics; a clothing rack hung with prison uniforms bearing ironed-on photos and correspondence between mothers and their children; a binder with a series of letters between one inmate and her daughter; and a series of paintings on wooden panels depicting the toll the women’s imprisonment takes on their children.
The exhibit, co-curated at UVM by seniors Justine Cohen and Davin Sokup, is the first of its kind to be held in the lounge on the center’s third floor. It’s a perfect site for such a show, Cohen says. And its placement right in the middle of the room invites students and professors to engage with the art. “We hope the academic community will work to tackle some of these bigger questions,” Nagelschmidt says.