Walls Turned Sideways: Artists Confront the Justice System [Audio]

In October 2018, the Block Museum hosted a panel discussion with Chicago artists committed to prison reform and to using art as a mechanism for change. In recognition of the 2020-2021 One Book One Northwestern reading selection Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption we are happy to make audio and transcript of this important discussion available for the first time.

The panel included Mary Patten and Dorothy Burge of Chicago Torture Justice Memorials, Kevin Kaempf of Lucky Pierre, and Sarah Ross and Eric Blackmon of Prison and Neighborhood Arts Project. These artists spoke to their work both as individuals and in collaboration, followed by dialogue moderated by Risa Puleo, Ph.D. Candidate in Art History and curator of the exhibition Walls Turned Sideways: Artists Confront the Justice System, a 2018 exhibition presented at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, including work by these artists/collectives and 40 others nationally.

This event kicked off the annual Imagining America gathering on art and justice “Transformative Imaginations: Decarceration and Liberatory Futures”


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Many of us who have been activists for years felt, where is the fairness? Where is the justice in this? And there was a real push then, how do we get justice? And that’s when the Chicago Justice Torture Memorials group came together, composed of a number of people, educators, activists, attorneys, survivors of torture, to say, “We want to fight for reparations, using art as a tool.”

Dorothy Burge on Chicago Police’s Torture Tactics and Quilting as Protest

One of the lawyers who was working to defend
survivors approached a number of artists that they knew and said, “The legal arena seems exhausted.
How can we imagine that cultural work can keep this struggle alive and keep the memory of it alive?”

Mary Patten on the Success of Reparations for Torture Victims

Our approach to
teaching was one of collaboration because we knew that people inside were already writers, already artists, already scholars doing work way before we came and doing work when we left. So our approach was to think collaboratively about how to make it work together, how to match our different skills that we could bring together.

Eric Blackmon & Sarah Ross on Artistic Collaboration with Chicago Inmates

It’s crucial that cultural institutions share an important role in this community conversation and that in these institutions, we bring our positions, our backgrounds, and our passions to these types of
institutions as a way of bringing them out from our homes, our backyards, and our streets

Kevin Kaempf on Lucky Pierre’s Final Meal Request Series

What struck me in your work was the movement from the I to the we…. In that movement, I also see a kind of deferral of the sacred space of the artist to highlight the voices and experience of those people that are most directly affected by these issues that
we’re talking about today.

Conversation and Q&A moderated by Curator Risa Puleo

Images from the Evening

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