'Inside Artists Reaching Out': Artwork from prisoners on loan in Braddock library
The Prism Project, launched by an SCI-Fayette inmate, lets library patrons borrow a prison artist's work
November 23, 2014 12:00 AM
At the opening of the Prism Project.
From left, Erika Johnson of East Liberty, Rachel Brehm and Rachel Rose of Forest Hills, check out some of the art on display.
Jewelry boxes made by Ronald Heller are on display.
Art lending facilitator Mary Carey, center, talks with Jennifer Wood last week during the opening of the Prism Project's “Inside Artists Reaching Out” at the Braddock Carnegie Library. The Prism Project makes artwork made by prisoners available to check out at the library as part of the art lending program.
By Diana Nelson Jones / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Last February, Mary Carey received a letter at her job in Braddock’s Carnegie Library from a man serving a life sentence at the State Correctional Institution in LaBelle, Fayette County.
He proposed organizing an exhibit of his fellow prisoners’ artwork as a contribution to the library’s art lending program.
In his letter, Richard Guy, previously of Wilkinsburg, mentioned that he had read about the program and “mentioned it to a couple of my fellow inmates who are very good artists. My idea is to give these guys an avenue of creativity and to help the library out.”
Mr. Guy cleared the hurdles of the state prison system’s approval and the packages started arriving in the spring. And they kept arriving.
“Apparently, the word got out,” said Ms. Carey, who oversees the library’s art lending program. “There were supposed to be 20 [works] but some guys donated 30 to make sure they got one thing in the show.”
The library held a reception last week to launch the first exhibit of The Prism Project, “Inside Artists Reaching Out.” The 25 pieces on exhibit will be available for people with library cards to check out in January. Another group of donated items will just be on display, including handmade cards, a doll house and jewelry boxes made out of folded paper.
“When I opened the first package, I couldn’t contain myself,” Ms. Carey said, beaming at a portrait of Bob Marley that now hangs on the wall in the library. It depicts the reggae superstar’s head thrown back in an expression of joy. “I couldn’t believe how good they were.”
Among the works is a pencil drawing of President John F. Kennedy, a painting of a footpath lined with trees in gold and red foliage, a fabulistic rendering of an action figure, a painting of a man in chains.
A long, group-made mural shows a man behind a fence topped by concertina wire near a cemetery whose tombstones read “Here Lies Bad Choices,” “RIP Heroin” and “RIP Meth.”
Ms. Carey is sending certificates honoring their accomplishment to the participating inmates.
Art programs have recently been scaled back or eliminated depending on staff or instructor availability, wrote Susan McNaughton, the department of corrections’ press secretary, in an email.
Inmates are allowed some art materials, but they have to get creative with limited supplies, using unconventional items, including string, toothpaste caps and pieces of wood.
“You wouldn’t believe all the talent in this place,” Mr. Guy wrote in his letter. Claiming to lack any talent of his own, he contributed a painting of a clock that has no hands.
“I don’t know the Richard from the past but I know the Richard of now,” Ms. Carey said. “I never wanted to know what they did. I wanted to see them as artists.”
Mr. Guy has spent 32 years in the state prison system for the stabbing death of a friend after an argument. In a 1995 interview, he said he had been strung out on vodka and valium at the time.
During his time in prison, he graduated cum laude with a degree in psychology from the University of Pittsburgh’s program at SCI-Pittsburgh, where he taught other inmates public speaking.
Jody Guy, Mr. Guy’s first cousin, represented him at the opening show and read his speech to the crowd of about 80 people.
“I tried to” represent him, she said. “He’s very conscientious over detail.”
Ms. Guy told the audience, reading from her cousin’s prepared speech, that another inmate had planted the seed for the show by “bemoaning the lack of artistic opportunities that incarceration imposes. I was swamped with artists desiring to contribute.”
A young inmate told him “that within all bad lies some good and he wanted the world to know his artwork represented his good.”
The audience included one family of an inmate, a mother and daughter of elementary school age.
“I told her, ‘No matter what people said about your dad, be proud of him for this,’ ” said Ms. Carey, “and she said, ‘I am.’
“We are hoping to involve other inmates from different sections of the prison, maybe guys who are coming home so they can see their work here and have that sense of accomplishment.”
Ms. Carey said people asked to buy some of the works at the opening of the show.
“I hope this opens a door for the guys to get their art program back,” she said.
Reading Mr. Guy’s speech, Ms. Guy said that the Prism Project “humbly offers this artwork as a small token of restitution to the community and society for the harms that we have caused.”
Diana Nelson Jones: email@example.com or 412-263-1626.
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