Artist Interview: Sarah Ross

Today we share a brief interview between Sarah Ross and Weinberg/Newton Gallery Intern / Mikva Student Curator, Jacob Naszke.

Sarah Ross is a Chicago based artist and co-founder of the Prison + Neighborhood Arts Project, currently featured Bold Disobedience on view at Weinberg/Newton Gallery June 23 – September 1, 2017.

Bold Disobedience is a group exhibition presented in collaboration with Mikva Challenge. Selected by a council of twelve student curators, this collection of works demonstrates myriad social issues that matter to youths today. The exhibition comprises works by local professional artists as well as student artists from the Chicago High School for the Arts. These artworks grapple with the issues that our team of student curators have deemed most critical in our conflicted contemporary culture, promoting racial justice, economic equity, and queer rights. The student curators have directed every aspect of this exhibition, from research to conceptualization to installation.

Portrait by Matt Davis
, 2016, Acrylic paint, canvas, plywood, 30 x 52 inches

Weinberg/Newton Gallery: In 2012, you co-founded the Prison + Neighborhood Arts project (PNAP), can you tell us a little about the work PNAP does and how you found yourself getting involved?

Sarah Ross: Prison + Neighborhood Arts Project is a visual arts and humanities project that connects teaching artists and scholars to people incarcerated at Stateville Prison through classes, workshops and guest lectures. Classes offered include subjects ranging from poetry, visual arts, and theatre to political theory, Black studies and Latino history. Classes are held once a week, on a 14 week semester schedule. Courses often result in finished projects—visual art, creative writing and critical essays. These works are then exhibited and read in neighborhood galleries and cultural centers. I’ve been teaching in prisons for almost 12 years now. When I moved to Chicago in 2006, Bill Ryan, a long time advocate for incarcerated people, asked me to teach at Stateville. Since I’d taught at another prison I knew it would be important to build capacity so that others could also teach inside, make connections to people surviving incarceration and ultimately be part of a larger critical mass to think about the world we want to live in– one that doesn’t use prisons as solutions to harm. 

WNG: You have worked with the people of Stateville Prison for many years now, what have you learned from them? Do they have an effect on the way you approach the world?

SR: What I’ve learned is intertwined with life and struggles on both sides of the prison wall. Those struggles have to do with profound inequities and curtailed life chances that emerge from structural racism, structural abandonment of whole communities, and the use of policing, prisons, and punishment as the only responses to human needs. Prison is a ground zero of a whole chain of events, histories and policies that shapes people’s – whole communities– lives. 

WNG: How do you feel the general public views the inmates at Stateville? What misconceptions do you most wish to change?

SR: I think some of what a general public thinks about people in prison is shaped by looking at popular culture which produces mostly negative stereotypes. There have been great art, cultural projects and reporting that have gotten out stories of people in prison that do a great job of reminding us of the humanity of people in prison. Statistically, if 1 and 100 people have been under correctional control in some time in their lives, then that means that many people in the general public know someone who has been in prison, on probation, or who has been arrested. I think one of the things we need to focus on is that people are more than their crimes and people do change–often making changes against the odds, against the grain. People who have been incarcerated or are currently incarcerated are participating in the world around us– as mentors, writers, business owners and social service providers. Importantly, people in and outside of prison are the strongest voices around ending mass incarceration, imagining other solutions to harm. 

Portrait by Elton Williams
, 2016, Acrylic paint, canvas, plywood, 25 x 33 inches

WNG: You have several pieces produced through PNAP in the Bold Disobedience exhibition. The large scale self portraits from Stateville are particularly striking and spread throughout the gallery. Can you tell us about the process of producing these works?

SR: For many people in prison, the only photograph they have of themselves is the one taken by the prison— that’s an ID, not a photo— so in this way punishment is not only incarceration, instead, once incarcerated are many ways in which the state limits one’s ability to see oneself, to imagine oneself as anything other than a subject of the state. In these pieces artists imagined themselves beyond the state. We projected their state IDs onto canvases. The artists modified the image by creating a pattern that visually and metaphorically disrupted the ID. 

WNG: In your piece “and what happens here” you touch on the pipeline from housing projects to prisons, noting that they are often contained and closely watched in similar ways. Do you think modern surveillance is spilling over into civilian life?

SR: This work was inspired by a group of people in Stateville prison who were writing a letter to the community. So the text in this work is from their letter which was published in the Black Panther Newspaper in 1975. I was struck by it b.c they are articulating issues that are very similar conditions we live with now. Importantly, in the 1970s there was a spike in prison population from around 200,000 people in prison to, by the end of the decade, almost 300,000. The Nixon presidency was the beginning of some policies that began the era of mass incarceration. Today we lock up 2.2 million people in prisons. Modern surveillance and indeed many things about prisons are present in our lives in the free world– and make up what we call a “carceral state”. For instance, schools go on ‘lockdowns’ in emergencies; police are heavily armored with artillery from recent foreign wars and yes of course surveillance is everywhere– in our homes, classrooms, in our communications.  

And what happens here
, 2015, Archival inkjet print, 9 x 14 inches

WNG: Foucault writes a lot about surveillance through the concept of the Panopticon, a building design that allows all inmates of an institution to be observed by a single guard without the inmates being able to tell whether or not they are being watched. What kind of detrimental effect do you feel this has on a human? Do you ever find inmates creating art that reflects this?

SR: The last working Panopticon was just closed at Stateville this year. It was a horrible, terrible place. Many people who lived in that place could tell you much more about it– and some have written about it. I’m not trained to project ideas about the detrimental effects that building had on people. But the same ideas of the need for clean living conditions, light, fresh air, and space apply to people in prison as it applies to us. And this is one of many reasons to imagine and work together towards another way to address harms. 

WNG: What does the future of PNAP look like?

SR: This year we have raised funding for 8 people to get a college degree! We are super excited about this new opportunity. It will be the first secular bachelor degree program in the state. Currently there are certificate programs and a few associate’s degree programs, but no bachelor’s degree programs outside of the bible colleges. Also, we are working on a large project about long term sentencing. Currently 1 out of every 7 people in prison are serving life or what’s called “virtual life” (over 50 years). The crimes they committed are not different from crimes committed in past decades but what is different in the last 20 years is sentencing structures that lock people up for longer and longer times. Those policies also specifically targeted black and brown people in the most pernicious ways. We cannot talk about ending mass incarceration without talking about releasing people with long term sentences. There is some very important work being done on this in some states, but not nearly enough. Because we are working with people sentenced to extremely long terms, we are looking at long term sentencing and all the other long terms it produces– like long term vacancies in neighborhoods, long term loss in families, long term relationships built in, and over, the prison wall. 

Installation shot of Portrait by Devon Daniels, 2016 / And what happens here, 2015

To learn more about the Prison + Neighborhood Arts Project visit their website