Death don’t have no mercy…

Blue skies & yellow fields

I spent the past couple of months curating and installing The Form of Reform show, which features art and writing from Tennessee’s Riverbend Maximum Security Institution death row population…

The backside of a napkin…

Did you know that 29 states, including Tennessee, still hand out capital punishment sentences?  The Volunteer State took a 40-year hiatus from 1960-2000 but has since executed 13 men, including 3 in 2018, 3 in 2019, and 1 in 2020 with 4 more scheduled before the year ends.  Do these men deserve death for what they did? The insiders I spoke with never denied their guilt. Instead, our communications centered around their desire to be seen as human and to be able to atone in some way for what they had done…

Mother and child

If you had asked me 6 months ago if I cared about the men – or women – on death row or anything related to that topic I would have answered ‘no’.  But life’s a funny thing and when the installation’s real mastermind, E. Lanphair, suggested using the insider art and writing as a way to stimulate community conversations around the death penalty, incarceration, and prison reform it was easy to say ‘yes’ …

The heartbreaking truth behind the blue vase

I am really stunned by the viewers responses to the work on display and have had a number of interesting conversations since the show opened. Most people who have see the show have some connection to the insiders, or are against the death penalty and want to show their support. There is frequent mention of the talent needed to create the paintings, drawings, sculpture, jewelry, and prints that make up the show.  I’ve given tissues to viewers who cried at the staggering pain and loss evidenced in various insider writings, like ‘The Blue Vase’, making the words difficult to comprehend and harder to forget…

My son

I’ve also had many conversations, with outsiders AND insiders, on why all of the art displayed is ‘anonymous’. There are very real reasons we had to ‘x’ out any artist name to be able to show the art, including Department of Corrections rules, victims rights concerns, and jeopardizing the ability of volunteers to continue to provide creative arts programs inside. It actually works perfectly, since the prison system is designed to keep any attention focused away from the entire process, so much like I was a few months ago, society won’t know and so can’t care…

If you do care in any way about this subject I encourage you to begin by asking:  Do I agree with the death penalty? Is it fair to sentence someone to death and then keep them alive inside of a cage for 40 years? Do we, as a society, really believe these men and women can be reformed? If so, what does that reform look like and when can we be certain the change is true? How can the system be changed so insiders can atone and contribute to the larger community? 

A life in balance

Frankly, there are a million questions that can be asked, and no opinion or viewpoint is wrong.  This is such a gnarly topic with so many angles to explore I can’t say for certain if there are any definitive answers. That said, I firmly believe if we speak to each other about the many issues surrounding capital punishment, prison reform, and the prison pipeline, and have those conversations many times, with many people, we will be able to make positive changes which lead to less insiders (and more art)…

*Death Don’t Have No Mercy – The Grateful Dead

2 thoughts on “Death don’t have no mercy…

  1. Incredibly powerful. Thanks for sharing. The artwork is beautiful and haunting. The story about the blue vase is heartbreaking.

    Like

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