Honoring an Inmate through Socially Engaged Art

Faculty Mentor(s)

Professor Tori Pelz, Art and Art History, Professor Sara Alsum-Wassenaar, Art and Art History; Deb Coyle, CASA Program Coordinator

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Socially engaged art is frequently used as a vessel of change. An artist can bring together his/her vision and a community of people together in order to collaborate on art aimed at making a social impact. Collaborations such as these can produce bold messages that foster change in society. Specifically, the fight for social justice has been greatly supported by socially engaged art. In a recent first year seminar (FYS) project, students collaborated to prepare and host a dinner party on behalf of a local inmate and his family. The gathering explored concepts of honoring and remembering loved ones, as well as accepting and forgiving them. In order to frame the event as socially engaged art, the dinner incorporated student-designed visual elements, such as placemats with stories of transformation by other inmates as well as decor highlighting Gregory’s poetry. Gregory’s reflections of his own journey were also included in a book that was presented to the family at the dinner. In the book designed by students, Walking Gregory’s Neighborhood, Gregory takes Professor Pelz on a tour of his neighborhood through poetic descriptions of formative sites. A second FYS class prepared the food for the dinner party and thoughtfully considered hospitality arrangements for the evening, enacting Gregory’s wishes in every detail for the event. This class focused on extending hospitality and utilizing food and connection to bring comfort. Preparation for the project consisted of learning about prejudices and discrimination that inmates and former inmates face, the disparity in incarceration rates between different races, and the effects of mass incarceration. Through this project, students directly observed the positive impacts that socially engaged art can have on a group of people.

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