In Person

The Inside Books Project Prisoner Art and Poetry Exhibition

In Person
Photo By John Anderson

MonkeyWrench Books, March 22

Disregarding any trace of overstatement, it was hard to not think of Jean Genet while studying the work of Floyd Bell, whose studio is the Snake River Correctional Institution in Ontario, Ore. "There is a close relationship between flowers and convicts," Genet wrote in 1949. "The fragility and delicacy of the former are of the same nature as the brutal insensitivity of the latter." A half-century later, then, on a brisk Saturday night at MonkeyWrench, the most immediate view upon arrival at Inside Books' closing party for its Prisoner Art and Poetry Exhibition was Bell's pen-and-ink of a neon-green motorcycle complete with flames streaking down its flanks and a skeleton shooting a gun. It shakes you a little -- you could almost hear the thing revving up with an apocalyptic whine -- but wasn't at all unexpected in a showcase of the visual and verbal efforts of this country's incarcerated. What was maybe unexpected was edging down the display and seeing more of Bell's work: a series of roses with butterflies circling petals of lavender, pink, red, and aqua; religious roses, iconic ones, with great big thorns and stylized but soft-looking leaves. The shock of recognition.

So, it was hard to not think of Genet, but it was hard to not think of a lot of things. In Salt Lake City, to begin with, No. 9 seed Gonzaga was giving the heavily favored Arizona all it could handle in a game that would eventually be decided in double overtime, and I'm quite sure I wasn't the only one wishing that these anarchists had at least just a little transistor tuned to Westwood One's broadcast. Even if I was, I mean, come on. And, more to the point, if you hadn't known what exactly was going on here in the first place, you'd think that in the wake of the U.S.-led coalition's Operation Iraqi Freedom decapitation phase, this many people (upward of a hundred throughout the evening) in MonkeyWrench's back yard could mean only one thing: outrage at the unjust.

Instead, it was almost a celebration of the unjust, or a celebration of what those who many believe languish in unjust conditions can achieve. "It's a good way for [prisoners] to vent, to get something off their chests. Just getting your mind off the fact that you're locked in a cage," said Eric, a member of the Anarchist Black Cross who requested that his surname be kept a blank. "They're able to express their emotions, their fears, their anger." Inside Books, an all-volunteer Austin nonprofit that has been providing literature and educational texts to prisoners since 1998, organized this exhibition along with the ABC, and the proceeds from the art sale, raffle, and reception will benefit those two groups. Sales themselves were slow: This wasn't, after all, your typical art-buying crowd, though prices were reasonable. And there was formidable artwork up on the rickety wooden fence and store walls: Scott Servis' disturbing pencil drawing of a droidlike figure nailing himself to a cross, bordered with the jagged text of "To sustain its existence, the ruling microcosm needs your total subservience"; a man called Morris' smudgy charcoals of wide-eyed, weeping women; Andy Reindeau's vivid, symbolist collage. Plus, rumors of some stirring, unrevealed work by a mysterious genius possibly named Robert Velasquez.

"It has been very satisfying so far, because all art should be political," said Erin Howley, who at 22 has worked with Inside Books, Free the Angola 3, and the ABC. "And the nature of the prison industrial complex is such that anything creative that comes out of it will be political, just because of where it's from. This is expression from people who are never heard from or seen. And we're building relationships, as far as artwork is concerned, and art is a powerful way to connect to people."

As opener Cinders, the Imbroglio String Quartet, and finally e.c.f.a. accompanied the browsing from a smallish stage adorned with Christmas lights, chapbooks were sold inside, and clusters of discussion seemed to break out everywhere you looked. And there was a Kiddie Corner, for god's sake, which for the most part was left unattended as the kiddies were enlisted to vend raffle tickets. "We've been planning this for months, as a way to raise money and educate people in terms of the prison system," said Scott Odierno of Inside Books, who was busy staffing a table layered with pamphlets, books, and fliers. "But also to have a good time."

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