"Portrait of My Father", San Quentin State Prison, 2006

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A Quest for Authenticity: Artists in California Prisons

Peter Merts | United States

When I was invited to photograph incarcerated artists in California, I didn’t know what to expect. I had visited prisons before, so the environment was not new—but it was hard to imagine what an artist might produce in a place so restrictive, regimented, and sometimes violent.

What I found, from my first visit, were men—later, I found the same in women’s prisons—who were wholeheartedly engaged with a transformative art process.

They were examining their lives, exposing their vulnerabilities, and creating art that reverberated to the depths of their beings. With mentorship from their instructors, these artists explored issues of identity, heritage, family, and society. I believe that they were searching for personal meaning, and for authenticity—by which I mean the state of living and acting from personal, internal moral integrity, as opposed to compliance with external social pressures.

Witnessing this authenticity is what keeps me returning to prison art classes, so the quest is twofold—it pertains both to the strivings of the artists, and to my own efforts with this project.

For this project, I worked closely with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, who funds these prison art programs; the California Arts Council, the state agency that administers these programs; and numerous county arts councils and arts NGO's, who hire and manage the teaching artists. All of these organizations have used my photos to promote their efforts.

I have now photographed in all 36 adult California state prisons, and have built a large image archive. Photos from this archive were used extensively in a book co-published by me, Paths of Discovery—Art Practice and Its Impact in California Prisons (second edition, 2015). They have also appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Economist, HuffPost, the Guardian, and elsewhere.

Images from this archive were published in a monograph by Daylight Books in June 2022—Ex Crucible: The Passion of Incarcerated Artists.

Alliance for California Traditional Arts, The Actors' Gang, Artistic Ensemble, Arts Council of Kern, Bread & Roses Presents, Dance Kaiso, Fresno Arts Council, Fugitive Kind Theater, Give A Beat, InsideOUT Writers, Jail Guitar Doors, KALW Radio, Marin Shakespeare Company, Muckenthaler Cultural Center, No Joke Theater, Playwrights Project, Prison Arts Collective, Project PAINT, Red Ladder Theatre Company, Riverside Arts Council, TheatreWorkers Project, We Heart Art, and the William James Association


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