In prison, there are rules for everything. Rules for what kinds of shoes you can wear, what sorts of letters you can receive and, perhaps especially, what kinds of art you can create.

Casey McKeel, curator in residence at the Notre Dame of Maryland University, witnessed the latter firsthand. The college’s new exhibit, “Life on Hold,” features work created by incarcerated women. Each piece is anonymous to protect the artist and nothing is for sale. The collages tell stories of loss, pain and triumph; the paintings illustrate vivid memories of what it’s like being a woman in prison.

“We had to document [all the materials] we brought in” to the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women, McKeel said. “I remember carrying wet collages to my car hoping that they wouldn’t get messed up on the drive.”

McKeel has volunteered with the Maryland Correctional Facility in various capacities over the past 10 years. When applying for the guest curator position at NDMU, she imagined using the skills and connections she’d honed at the prison to create a show featuring the work of incarcerated people.

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The exhibition, on display at the Gormley Gallery through March 3, was a grassroots effort. McKeel, in collaboration with gallery Director Jennifer Wester, hosted an informational session for students and faculty at the university to see who would work with her, as she required curatorial assistance with installation and transport, as well as educators who were willing to go into the facility and teach the artists.

Collages made by incarcerated woman are on display at the “Life on Hold” exhibit. (Jessica Gallagher/The Baltimore Banner)

Though McKeel received some monetary donations, none fully covered the exhibition expenses. She created an Amazon wish list for people to purchase materials for the inmates such as paints, glue and frames. But the most valuable donation was time.

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Three NDMU faculty members — Kathy Goucher, Julia Anderson and Sul-jee Scully — and Teri Henderson, author of “Black Collagists” and Arts and Culture Editor at Baltimore Beat, taught workshops at the facility. Over four sessions during the fall of 2022, the incarcerated women were guided by the teachers on how to collage and paint.

Three NDMU sophomores and art therapy majors, A’iesha Clark, Zoe Kumpf and Jaylien Washington, also volunteered to help bring the work to life. The university has the only art therapy program in the state, and pupils are often searching for experiential learning opportunities.

“Working on this made me remember I want to own a gallery someday,” Washington said.

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An inmate’s painting hangs next to a quote about art therapy in the Gormley Gallery. (Jessica Gallagher/The Baltimore Banner)
From left, Notre Dame of Maryland University student volunteers Zoe Kumpf, Jaylien Washington and A’iesha Clark helped assist McKeel during workshops at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women. (Jessica Gallagher/The Baltimore Banner)

Each student accompanied McKeel to the facility and assisted during a workshop. Clark said the opportunity to help incarcerated people inspired them to think about other communities they could serve: “I want to work with veterans and people who are recovering in hospitals.”

It was important to McKeel that the “Life on Hold” exhibit not only feature inmates’ art, but for them to have a chance to tell their story in their own words.

In the gallery, a simple phone plays audio from the artists. While still anonymous, the audio feels intimate, like speaking with a friend over coffee, or sometimes playful, as the women share why and how they created their work.

That work isn’t done. McKeel has gotten a lot of interest from galleries to continue the program and is currently applying for grants and opportunities that would allow her to present another exhibition featuring incarcerated people. There are plenty of potential artists to choose from, after all: The United States imprisons more people than any other country. In 2020, there were 358 imprisoned people per 100,000 U.S. residents — the lowest since 1992, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

For now, McKeel’s next step is bringing the exhibition to the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women, since the prisoners aren’t allowed to see the work at NDMU and it’s important for them to see the fruits of their labor.

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In audio from the gallery entitled “One Bad Fruit Doesn’t Spoil the Bunch,” one of the anonymous inmates zeroes in on her humanity behind the bars. “Just because you did something wrong, doesn’t mean you’re a bad person,” the woman says. “Some of us just made honest mistakes.”

Imani is an Arts and Culture writer with a background in libraries. She loves to read, hike and brag about her friends. 

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