Returning Artists Guild exhibit highlights ills of incarceration

The group show, now on display at the Vanderelli Room, makes a moving case for the abolition movement and the end of the prison industrial complex.
A self-portrait on display in the Returning Artist Guild group show at the Vanderelli Room.
A self-portrait on display in the Returning Artist Guild group show at the Vanderelli Room.Andy Downing

There’s a control board set on the elevated stage inside the Vanderelli Room in Franklinton with rows of buttons labeled “Isolation,” “Duty Stations” and “Medical Housing.”

Formerly installed in a prison infirmary, the board has since been reprogrammed by members of the Returning Artists Guild, its various toggles and switches now triggering displays of colored lights and the playback of an abolitionist short film created by Kamisha Thomas, who cofounded RAG five years ago alongside fellow artist Aimee Wissman.

In the film, viewers are confronted with grainy footage of a prison, which streams as a voiceover runs through the dehumanizing introductory steps to which inmates are subjected upon entering the facility. “Remove your socks and hand them to me inside out,” the voice drones. “Squat in a duck position and cough two times, hard.”

“We’re going to make that [control board] do some things. We’ve just scratched the surface on that baby,” said Thomas, who joined Wissman for an early July interview at the Vanderelli Room, where the RAG group show will be on display this Franklinton Friday, July 14. “Here’s what I want to try to do from now on: I want to make art from the heal place. Because if we want to get to the point where everything is rainbows and sunshine and we’re all holding hands singing ‘Kumbaya,’ and no one is in jail and nobody is homeless, then first we have to imagine it. … I believe in manifestation, and that we can create the world we want to live in. So, with the control panel, we’re going to imagine and then we're going to make it do tons of things it was not meant to do. And there's power in that.”

The group show, which features artwork by currently and formerly incarcerated artists, incorporates a full range of experiences, with some pieces serving as raw commentaries on the prison industrial system, particularly a series of works by the painter Zeph, and others providing needed escape from the surrounding brutality. Throughout, found items are transformed into stunning canvases and installations, with soda tabs, playing cards and torn paper all finding fresh purpose in the hands of the artists – a skill Thomas said developed out of necessity.

“You have to, because everything is contraband,” she said. “The minute you’re not using something how it’s supposed to be used, it turns into contraband. If the heat goes out and you want to use the hairdryer to keep your feet warm, ope, now it’s contraband. So you have to be resourceful, because they’re not giving you everything you need. And that transfers into whatever your practice is, whether it’s knitting or painting. … No matter what, people are going to find a way.”

Thomas, who described herself as a "watcher," has long had an interest in filmmaking. While incarcerated, she participated in Pens to Pictures, a program created by former Wright State University assistant professor of motion pictures Chinonye Chukwu in which select inmates were given the opportunity to make a short film. Transformed by the experience, Thomas and Wissman went on to create an art therapy program for fellow inmates.

“While we were in there, we learned very personally we were people who had to make art for our own trauma,” Wissman said. “But we were also teaching other people to use artmaking to heal and release and communicate.”

When the two founded Returning Artists Guild in 2018, it served a number of roles, offering a framework in which returning community members could pursue art while also preserving a needed sense of fellowship. Thomas, for one, recalled the challenge of adjusting to life outside of prison, where even a simple shopping trip could trigger an emotional breakdown. “And I can’t imagine going through that transition without Aimee going before me and being like, ‘Okay, be prepared to sit in the Walmart parking lot bawling your eyes out,'” Thomas said.

In addition to fostering artmaking and community, RAG has also provided wide-ranging member assistance that Wissman compared with “case management,” aiding returnees with everything from babysitting costs to locating and securing therapists and other needed social services.

“Coming out, we didn't have the resources we needed,” said Wissman, a self-described abolitionist who doesn't believe the state should have a role in helping to fill that gap. “If the state were to offer a resource group for people coming home, I would tell them to go fuck themselves. That’s the misguided nature of all this reentry shit. How could these people that caused all the trauma also offer help?”

”The traumatizer,” Thomas added, ”is never going to fix the traumatized.”

The group’s fiercely independent approach is working, too. Wissman said in the five years RAG has been in operation, no group member has returned to prison. And now the grant money has begun to trickle in. In the last year, RAG, which is in the process of reclassifying as a 501(c)(3), secured funding from sources such as Art for Justice and has started communications with the Mellon Foundation. The plan is to utilize these incoming funds to buy a building in Columbus and establish an artist residency program for returning artists.

“We want to get them in studios, get them with mentors, get them talking to other artists,” Wissman said. “That, to me, seems like the real work. Getting this funding so we can build this community, support artists in making their work, and move from a carceral to a creative economy.”

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