The Old Milford Sign Barn, Reedy Point, Fenwick Island and the Wilmington & Western Railroad – detailed and emotional images of Delaware currently dot the Recitation Hall gallery walls.
Carmita Kelley, though, isn’t thinking about what gallery visitors will see on canvas.
“I hope that they don’t see an inmate painted this. I hope that they don’t see, the questions in their mind, ‘What did they do?’” said Kelley, who is coordinator for the prison arts program at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center. “What I hope they see is a beautiful piece of art. What I hope they see is inspiration.”
The exhibition “Parallel Visions, Parallel Lives” opened Feb. 6 in the in Recitation Hall gallery at the University of Delaware. Curated by Bridget Killian, a master’s degree student in art history at UD, the show features more than 30 works – a combination of landscapes, portraits and imagined scenes – from artists in the prison arts program at the correctional center near Smyrna.
The exhibition is a year in the making and came about after Killian contacted Kelley while looking for volunteer opportunities at community arts programs. At the same time, UD’s art history and art and design departments were pursuing an open-ended idea for a campus show.
However, when Killian contacted Kelley, a riot had recently broken out at Vaughn, leaving one correctional officer dead. The event put programming, including the art classes, on hiatus for security reasons, Kelley said.
But the two kept in touch and when the program restarted in July, Killian was still keen on featuring work from the prison arts program. If anything, the events helped “assert its importance in the state’s artistic community,” she said. Killian is personally interested in social justice efforts that use art to bridge local divides and is also a volunteer tutor at Baylor Women’s Correctional Institution in New Castle.
The prison arts program runs in eight-week cycles, and inmates must exhibit good behavior to be considered for a class, which is supervised by a Department of Correction employee and taught by an inmate art instructor, Kelley said. Applicants are screened, but no artistic background is necessary to start, Kelley said. The four classes inmates can currently take include introduction to adult coloring, basic drawing, beginners’ painting and advanced painting.
The program has been around since the late 1970s, said Kelley, who took the lead in 2004. Ostensibly a set of art classes, the program can not just improve an inmate’s literacy and creative skills, but also improve their sense of self-worth and discipline, according to organizers.
Included in “Parallel Visions, Parallel Lives” is a success story. Three walls of the Recitation Hall Gallery have works from inmates in the program, but the fourth is dedicated to artist Roy Hickman. Hickman, who spoke at the opening, previously participated in the program while incarcerated and, since being released, has continued painting.
That positive trajectory was at the heart of Killian’s original idea for the show.
“What I thought we could achieve through this show would be to connect the men who are producing this work with resources, should they get out, so that they could enter into housing and employment,” Killian said.
Throughout the exhibition is a sense of nostalgia and emotion. At the opening, viewers appeared to connect with the works, Killian said, and there have been some inquiries about sales.
Killian, whose own academic work focuses on photography and photojournalism, noted several pieces engage with local artistic traditions, like those tied to the Wyeth family and the Brandywine School. In artist Jamal Hicks’ works, still, winter pastoral scenes feature low-hanging skies and detailed barnscapes.
Although Kelley frequently shows the art work at craft fairs around the state, the formal gallery show on campus is unique. All works created through the program are available for sale, with 70 percent of the proceeds deposited into the artist’s commissary account and 30 percent used to cover the cost of supplies.
When Kelley takes the artwork for shows, she is often asked if she is the artist, even though she displays the works with a large sign for the program. She noted Nascar, flowers and the beach are popular with people who buy the work and, in turn, those who create it.
Kelley spoke highly of the sense of place captured in several works included in the UD show. In “Blue Beach Cruiser,” an acrylic on canvas by Gerald “Honcho” Collins, an electric blue bicycle rests lazily against dune fencing while warm sand and bright skies stretch above and below.
She is hopeful viewers will walk away considering the artists based on what they’ve created.
“There has to be something special about anyone incarcerated that can sit down and produce what you are looking at,” Kelley said.
“Parallel Visions, Parallel Lives” will remain on display through March 2. The first-floor Recitation Hall gallery is a rotating exhibition space for visiting artists and students. The gallery is free and open to the public Mondays through Fridays from noon to 5 p.m.
Before the exhibition closes, the panel discussion “Art and Social Justice in Delaware” will be held on March 1 from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. in Room 211 in Old College. Panelists will include Emily Artinian of Network Delaware and Street Road Gallery, Michael Kalmbach of the Creative Vision Factory, Matthew Pillischer of the Delaware YWCA and Carmita Kelley of the Prison Arts Program. The event is free and open to the public.