Inmates incorporate social justice into artwork

Megan Godinez
Staff Writer

Various artists contributed to the exhibit “Disruption! Art and the Prison Industrial Complex,” which had a reception opening the exhibit on Saturday at Pitzer College.

Artists, photographers, painters and former inmates, as well as some currently detained, had their work on display to advocate for art and social justice.

“In this particular show I was really interested in the opportunity to bring artists together who are currently and formerly incarcerated with artists who are not directly impacted in that way, but are working in issues around mass incarceration and criminal justice,” Annie Buckley, curator, said.

Childhood friend and work associate to Buckley, Noelle Swan, presented her “Life After Death” display through photographs of her nephews, whom tragically lost their mother to gun violence.

“It felt normal to capture photos of my nephews than to rather face my grief head on,” Swan said. “The barrier of the camera helped me to focus solely on being a photographer, and when I am shooting, I allow myself to disconnect.”

Over the course of a few years, Swan said she was able to realize that the hundreds of photos she has taken of her family could actually make something of a documentary project, which she portrayed at the exhibit.

Formerly incarcerated and now lead teaching artist, Stan Hunter, used his art to explain his experience and outlook while in confinement and his life after incarceration.

“I experienced the transformation in my life when I finally realized I didn’t need drugs just to numb everything, and that I needed a paintbrush, I needed some color pencils, I needed an outlet, it just gave me freedom,” Hunter said.

Hunter displayed various drawings and paintings ranging from Albert Einstein to Mother Theresa, as well as a mural of prehistoric life called “Dinosaurs” that he made with his students. He created a lot of his work throughout the duration of his time served.

“I chose forgiveness, to move forward and I’ve always felt that my purpose was to give this back, this gift of art, to others,” Hunter said.

Peter Merts, a photographer of 40 years, had a display of inmates in action through an assortment of photos captured throughout a range of prisons.

“I fell in love with the classes provided to inmates because of the dedication and commitment of the student artists, the way they were helping each other, setting the rules of the yard aside when they go in the art studio,” Merts said.

Merts said he started out with only a few shoots a year at San Quentin prison.

“Eventually people started appreciating my work who liked this program which led to funding, allowing me to travel to other prisons,” Merts said.

He has now been to all 36 California state prisons to photograph both men and women’s art programs.

The art opening of “Disruption! Art and the Prison Industrial Complex” was one that told a story through each artist’s individual display by way of objective documentation, art formation and passage, thus creating a platform for both art and social justice.

Megan Godinez can be reached at

Megan Godinez
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