Throughout the legislative session, month-long art exhibitions are presented in the Vermont State House cafeteria. The ample, bright walls are well suited to artwork. For the most part, these are group shows. The exhibitions bring creativity and fresh expression to the dining space. For the artists, the exhibitions offer a daily audience of lawmakers, State House regulars, and visitors. This month, “Art from Behind Bars: An Exhibit of Works by Vermonters in Prison” is presented in the cafeteria to March 5. Organized by Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform, the show features over 20 artworks by women and men who are currently incarcerated. Artists in six corrections facilities including the women’s correctional facility in South Burlington and SCI-Camp Hill in Pennsylvania have work in the show. Tender pencil portraits, a bird with outstretched wings and tears falling from its eye, a fishbowl still life, works incorporating narrative and poetry — the show offers a breadth of subjects. It’s a poignant exhibition with the artists’ emotions and reflection on incarceration on display. “Art is something that every person is capable of producing,” explained David Schutz, Vermont state curator. “When someone or something brings it out in you, no matter what your circumstances are, it’s a terrific thing. Everyone can easily see issues for incarcerated people brought out in this art. That’s what is great about having it at the State House where lawmakers are grappling with incarceration.” “We couldn’t be more thrilled to have these powerful pieces of art in this powerful place,” Schutz said. The mission of Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform, the nonprofit organization sponsoring “Art from Behind Bars,” is “to achieve an effective and restorative criminal justice response.” Its vision is for “a system of addressing interpersonal harm that is restorative and community-based, using intervention as a support rather than a punishment.’ “We have a cultural tendency to dehumanize people who are incarcerated,” said Anna Stevens, the organization’s outreach director. “It happens on a lot of levels including in our communities and in corrections facilities. As is always true with artwork, this exhibition speaks to our shared humanity.” For the exhibition, VCIF reached out to families and friends of people who are incarcerated, to transitional houses and recovery communities, and to art teachers who work in the corrections system. “Inviting people to contribute artwork to this exhibit wasn’t seamless, but then again, correspondence with people in prison rarely is. Letters get delayed. Large envelopes are costly. Art supplies are hard to come by,” Stevens said. Artists participating in the show have made the most of the limited supplies available to them. Most of the artworks are drawings done with pencil, pen, colored pencil, markers or crayons. Only a few are paintings. Paper is for the most part letter sized multi-purpose sheets. “Everything you Own in a Box,” a precise black ink drawing with almost architectural perspective, brings viewers into the austere interior of a cell. An empty open box sits on the floor of the unadorned space with its cinderblock wall, toilet, sink and straight-backed chair. In “The Fuzzy Family Torn Apart,” a cartoon-style family stands together holding balloons. “Miss you Daddy” reads one child’s balloon; “But I’m a Vermont inmate” reads the father’s. Beside them, against the pale yellow sky, a road sign reads, “Next Stop Pennsylvania Camp – Hell.” The artist is one of 260 Vermonters currently at SCI-Camp Hill Pennsylvania. Resourcefulness with art supplies is especially evident in an intricate seascape. The pen and colored pencil artwork stretches across the unprinted side of 15 sheets of reused paper. Detailed vignettes come together in the expansive work. Fishermen in yellow slickers cast their nets as a school of fish circle overhead. A bald eagle, a leafy branch in its beak, soars past a lighthouse with its bright beacon shining out to sea. Mermaids swim with sharks and whales through the briny depths. An angel comforts a child as they look across the scene.   Vermont State House “Art from Behind Bars: An Exhibit of Works by Vermonters in Prison,” organized by Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform, is on exhibit in the Vermont State House Cafeteria, 111 State St. in Montpelier, until March 5. Hours are 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday-Friday; for information, call 802-828-0749, or go online to http://curator.vermont.gov.

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