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Melissa Starker, Creative Content & PR Manager
Nov 19, 2020
It's #TBT time. This week, we're excited to re-share the conversation from September 2017 with filmmaker Chinonye Chukwu and her collaborators on Pens to Pictures, along with life updates from three of the formerly incarcerated women who worked with Chukwu and Wex Film/Video Studio editor Paul Hill to create short films for the project.
Watch the conversation with Pens to Pictures participants from 2017.
Since the shorts premiered as part of a Director's Dialogue program, Chukwu has received international acclaim for her 2019 feature film Clemency, for which she became the first Black woman director to receive the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. Collaborators Tyra Patterson, Kamisha Thomas and Aimee Wissman have also gone on to do impressive and meaningful work in the worlds of art and advocacy. The words below are theirs.
Tyra Patterson, image via Ohio Justice and Policy Center
In addition to the policy and advocacy work I'm doing at the Ohio Justice & Policy Center, I'm also an ambassador with Represent Justice. It's a national organization designed to elevate the voices of people directly impacted by incarceration. I've been working on creating arts and humanities opportunities for people coming home from prison.
I'm also currently filming a documentary about my life called I Am Tyra. We've been filming for about a year. We still have a few months to go. But here's the most recent teaser.
I just completed a project with ArtWorks Cincinnati. It's a mural designed, created and led by artists who have experienced incarceration. I've also recently partnered with the Cleveland Cavaliers to do more murals and projects around the state centered around social justice. Here’s a story about it.
I've been actively writing op-eds in newspapers around the state as well:
Guest column for the Dayton Daily News, July 10, 2020: Criminalization too often our response to women’s and girls’ trauma
Guest column for the Columbus Dispatch, August 20, 2020: We can’t overcome racial injustices of incarceration, policing by just tearing down statues
Kamisha Thomas, image courtesy of the artist
As the last writer-director from Pens to Pictures to leave prison, my journey has been nothing less than remarkable. The short version goes something like this: I was released from prison on my birthday in 2018. Don’t get too excited for that because I went to Franklin County Correctional 2 (the work house) for about six weeks awaiting my judicial release hearing, a Community Based Correctional Facility (CBCF) assessment and finally, a bed at CBCF.
Once there, I found out that my six-month stay would only be a three-month stay, and then I was on to a halfway house located on the south side of Columbus. While at the halfway house I obtained a job, a car, and eventually stable housing for myself and my son.
During the 10-month period between the day I left prison and the day I moved into my own house, I had been in touch with Aimee Wissman quite frequently. She was the second to last Pens to Pictures alumni to leave prison and we had become quite close our last few months in prison. Almost immediately, we started working on the Returning Artists Guild (or RAG, described by its founders as "a network of currently and formerly incarcerated artists seeking and creating opportunities and community for artists inside and out”). We were also trying to flesh out ideas about a feature script that we came up with while we were still inside.
Our work with the RAG led us into a grant-funded studio space where we were able to create a sizable amount of artwork and organize our network of currently and formerly incarcerated artists. I finished another short script and applied for the Right of Return fellowship. That’s a nationwide competitive grant specifically for artists who have been incarcerated. Lo and behold, in March of this year, right before COVID-19 hit, I was awarded the fellowship. The project I pitched was a series of three short films called Silence is Consent, which focuses on exposing the injustices within the justice system and examining the ugly truths about humanity. I’m currently working to finish up the series. The third film is written and ready to go into production. Production on the first two films was completed with a lot of help from RAG artists. In fact, I couldn’t have done it without them. I’m looking forward to finishing the third film and working with the Wexner Center again for post-production on this project.
Side note: the Pens to Pictures films will be screened at MoMA in New York City as part of the Marking Time exhibit. That’s a huge f-ing deal, especially when my best friend has visual art in the exhibit as well! I’m sure she’ll tell you all about it.
(Editor's note: Thomas has also been creating jewelry and home accessories under the banner Made by Mish LLC.)
Aimee Wissman in the galleries of 400 W. Rich with a painting by local artist Henry Hess; photo: AJ Vanderelli
It’s been a long year for everyone in the Returning Artists Guild. A lot of us had gotten out just before the pandemic so we were able to start establishing lives. The folks that got out during this, it’s been extra challenging for them just to overcome the normal barriers like housing and employment during the pandemic. Kamisha and I have been doing a lot of checking in on everybody and really being more of a support system than an event crew this year. But that’s cool. I think there’s a lot of opportunity for us in the future, and everybody having a little time just to focus on themselves is OK.
I just had a virtual exhibit through Fresh A.I.R. Gallery and I’ve got a show at ROY G BIV in April. They had over 200 people apply for 2020-21 so I’m really excited I slipped through. I’m also working at the Riffe Gallery as Marketing and Exhibitions Fellow. I do a lot, I’ve learned a lot, and it’s certainly increasing my appreciation for just how the world of art works. Working with Cat [Sheridan, the gallery’s director] is really incredible.
And I anticipate graduating in 2021 from Ohio University. I’m really close to finishing the business track. I’m also starting to work with [Columbus artist] Michael Halliday. And Kamisha and I are operating out of a studio space in the back of The Vanderelli Room.
I’ve done a couple of podcasts this year and had a few articles. I’m in the last stages of going through a revision process with the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. They’re going to do an article about me and the Returning Artists Guild. I think the editors at first were not convinced that art in reentry space is a folk art, but I think through our conversations they’ve come around. I’m really excited to see that be a part of what they’re talking about. That could be another thing that shifts people’s perspectives about this work.
And then MoMA. Nicole Fleetwood wrote the book Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration and part of the release process for her was an exhibition at MoMA that’s open now. There are 44 visual artists in the exhibition, which is phenomenal. My work is on the wall in the same room with Sable Elyse Smith’s work. Kamisha and I also have the Pens to Pictures films included. The plan is to screen all five films, then Kamisha and I will do a directors’ talk back on Zoom. I think that’ll be spring. The exhibition closes in April. It’s been really exciting because I think for the first time, people are taking this work seriously, in a way that it should be.
I was definitely bothered by this tidbit: Of the three visual artists who participated in the exhibition who are in major permanent collections, one is dead and the other two are homeless. That has been my takeaway and something I’ve really been chewing on. What does it say about the value of this work, and how rarely something like having amazing visual art that people covet filters down into quality of life for the artists. So that’s just something I’ve been thinking about going forward: How do I make sure our work is valued appropriately and that something actually comes back from putting this out there?
Top of page: from Love or Loyalty by Tyra Patterson and Shawndra Jones, courtesy of the filmmakers
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