Art Against the Odds: Exhibition highlights art from inside Wisconsin prisons

NOW: Art Against the Odds: Exhibition highlights art from inside Wisconsin prisons


MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) An exhibition at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design (MIAD) shows creation through a unique lens.

The art is made by those serving time in the Wisconsin prison system.

Through various mediums, the displays evoke the therapeutic benefits of hands-on work, while giving those trapped in an emotionally draining environment a metaphorical way out.

CBS 58's Jenna Wells shared the true meaning behind the exhibit for CBS 58 Sunday Morning.

"Art just kind of filled a huge gap. It just filled a very big hole," said artist, John Tyson.

Tyson has always enjoyed art, from pottery to leatherwork, but it meant the most to him while he was incarcerated.

"It gave me balance. It gave me a complete sense of balance," Tyson said.

Creativity can be a common sense of comfort for inmates.

The 'Art Against the Odds' exhibition at MIAD aims to share its impact.

"95% of these individuals will be released into the community, and I think this show shows a certain sense of how full their humanity is, and how full their potential is," said co-curator, Debra Brehmer.

'Art Against the Odds' features 250 works by 65 currently and formerly incarcerated artists, from 20 of Wisconsin's prisons.

The pieces range from sketches and drawings to paintings and sculptures.

Many pieces are made out of found materials, like toothpicks, milk cartons, and chip bags.

"A lot of the work is smaller scale, and that's because when you're incarcerated, you can't keep large things in your cell," Brehmer said.

When she put out a call for artwork, Brehmer wasn't expecting submissions to be so vast, and so deeply moving.

"I think that was something that really startled us. The work was just consistently so good and accomplished," Brehmer said. "Everyone who sent us work is in the show."

MIAD's president, Jeff Morin, was immediately on-board.

"We have certain values that we live by at the college, and that we really look for opportunities to show evidence. Those values are community, inclusion, and courage. This exhibition speaks to all of that," Morin said.

The exhibition displays themes of isolation, the passage of time, and scarcity of resources.

Many of the artwork is repetitive and intentionally therapeutic.

"When I would get into it, and just do the motion, and draw, and listen to music with headphones on so I'm enclosed, it was just gorgeous," Tyson said.

In 2016, Tyson was diagnosed with throat cancer while still behind bars.

To distract himself from the diagnosis, he began drawing circles on thin typing paper.

"It just kept being a part of my ritual, and one day, I decided I'm just going to continue doing this. One a day," Tyson said.

The completed piece became 365 days of circles.

It was a representation of Tyson's experience, and his escape from a grim reality.

"It's still prison. It's still heartbreaking. I'm still separated from the people I love. But this created context," Tyson said.

As a whole, the exhibition is meant to shows how art survives in all environments.

"We think of the art world sometimes as museums and galleries, and the sanctioned art world, but art is being made everywhere," Brehmer said.

"One of the things that the exhibition shows is that to create is a very basic human need," Morin said.

Now out of prison and cancer-free, Tyson is stunned by the response from visitors who are seeing his work.

"It's a part of me. It's a part of my past. It's a part, obviously now, of my history. It doesn't define me. It marks me, like i marked it," Tyson said.

At the end of the show, there's a space for visitors to write letters to the artists. - a meaningful form of communication for inmates.

"The artists can't be here, so they will really, really be moved to hear any kind of a reaction to their work," Brehmer said.

The show runs through March 11.

Brehmer hopes its impact will reach far beyond the museum.

"These individuals are surviving. They are making art against the odds. They are surviving the system," Brehmer said.

"It's about redemption for me. This is redemptive," Tyson said.

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