“Behind the Wall” brings prison art and writing into public view

Painting by James Allen Gregg, Minneapolis, MN

Exhibit opens February 1 at Tompkins County Public Library

Nearly 2 million Americans live in jails, prisons, and detention centers, all but invisible to the rest of the world. A new exhibit at Tompkins County Public Library provides a rare glimpse into their lives, hearts, minds, and imaginations.

“Behind the Wall” is a traveling exhibition of drawings, paintings, letters, stories, and poems produced by people in prison. It includes 140 works by 90 incarcerated individuals from detention facilities in 22 states. There is a letter-writing station where visitors can send feedback directly to the participating artists.

The artworks will be on display in TCPL’s Avenue of the Friends for the entire month of February. There will be an informal opening at the library on Friday, February 3, from 4 to 5 p.m. No registration is required.

The exhibit will travel to Seymour Public Library in Auburn in March, Seneca Falls Library in April, Coburn Free Library in Owego in May, and Cortland Free Library in June.

“Behind the Wall” is organized by Story House Ithaca. The artworks and writings have been collected by Prisoner Express, a project of Durland Alternatives Library at Cornell, and curated by Newfield-based artist Treacy Ziegler. Both Story House Ithaca and Prisoner Express are projects of the Ithaca-based nonprofit Center for Transformative Action.

Founded and directed by Gary Fine, Prisoner Express uses newsletters, book exchanges, and art and creative writing programs to foster hope and a sense of community among incarcerated people around the country. The project currently reaches 4,000 prisoners. It has served more than 37,000 since its founding two decades ago.

“Many incarcerated people struggle with isolation, loneliness, and a lack of a sense of purpose,” Fine says. “Creative self-expression helps them process their experiences, build their skills, and communicate their thoughts and feelings with others.”

Story House Ithaca is a community organization devoted to bringing people together to share, study, create, and enjoy stories in all their forms.

“Behind the Wall” is presented in collaboration with the Finger Lakes Library System and the five participating libraries. It is supported by an action grant from Humanities NY. The display stands were made by John Fuchs of The Widget Factory.

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