Some background: the CRCI mural project is a 12-week art workshop in which participants will design, create and install a site-specific art project inside of Columbia River Correction Institution (CRCI), a minimum security men’s facility in North Portland. Through reading, writing, and art-making activities, participants will explore the concept of place: from the specificity and regulations of inside (CRCI as an institution, the interior rooms and exterior yard, the bunk) to the physical and emotional dislocation from outside (Portland, home, location prior to incarceration).
CRCI looks a little like this:
José made this drawing in our first workshop a few weeks ago. After a lengthy conversation on how he and his peers negotiate creative expression in their daily lives both during and prior to their incarceration – which in my mind, only confirmed that creativity is a necessary survival skill, not a superfluous lifeskill – I asked everyone to draw a map of where they live now. I did not get specific on what counted as a map.
Reiko and I go to CRCI on Wednesday afternoons to work with a group of men who are interested in making art and thinking critically about place. We’re ultimately going to be designing, creating and installing a series of flags – imagine the flags flying above used car lots, flags marking the end of the swimming pool, or Tibetan prayer flags, floating on the wind – and we have permission to hang them throughout the interior and exterior space of CRCI.
We have spent the first few weeks getting to know each other and making things with our hands. In addition to maps, we’ve made accordion books by collaging from two sources: the Sunday New York Times and the inmate newsletter. I asked participants to use the book as a platform for making a self portrait by using image (only) on one side of the book form and text (only) on the other. I love working in tandem with other artists: it is a moment where we can essentially eavesdrop on each other’s visual processes. It can be strangely intimate.
I witness Bryan and Julian methodically search through their source material, clipping, gathering, altering, organizing.
I watch José go for it, cutting and pasting immediately with no hesitation, and see Dennis’ love of “realism and sensuous colors” (how he describes why Botticelli is his favorite artist) show up immediately as he begins to create meaning from shapes and images.
In the meantime, Cliff independently heads in a completely self-driven direction, creating multiple layers in the book with craft and white paper before he even begins to add other content.
Dakotah is wrapping up another program, and can’t fully join us until later in November. Each week thus far, he runs in on his five minute break to see what we’re making and assures me, every time, that he’ll be here as soon as he can. Curt came for the first time last week and decided that he was going to try to rearrange his work schedule so that he could participate. Even though he “isn’t an artist,” he thinks this project “sounds like a good idea.”
While I am honored to work with this group of men and grateful for the support of Know Your City and the administration of CRCI, making art in a prison is hardly a new initiative: whether visual, written, theatrical, musical, you name it, someone is likely doing it somewhere (just Google “art workshops in prison” and you’ll see what I mean). I also have no illusions that collaborating on an art installation with men at CRCI is going to somehow fundamentally change the vast expanse of the prison industrial complex in this country. However, it is an opportunity to talk with this particular group of men about their experience of displacement from their families and communities and current lived reality of a totally different place. With and through this art project, we are going to to try and create meaning from this fragmentation.
Look for more updates on the CRCI mural project soon. Don’t forget: Know Your City is in the middle of our Fall Membership Drive and when you sign up to be member, you directly support our work like the CRCI Mural Project. As a member, you’ll be able to delve deeper into this project through a talk back about the project and we’re working to make the show open to all members. Make sure we can continue these critical placemaking programs – sign up to be a member of Know Your City now.