UWW Portrait Project
This portrait project began in May of 2021, when PNAP staff member and SAIC art history professor, Jason LaFountain, invited two SAIC students, Ruth Poor and Helen Sanchez-Cortes, to create painted portraits of our current UWW degree students at Stateville prison. It is the first of a series of special projects Jason will organize as part of his work at PNAP. This webpage includes final images of the ten portraits, with select details; project statements from the artists; and an illustrated transcript of a conversation between Helen, Ruth, and Jason, which took place toward the end of the project, on January 17, 2022. The transcript appears on the second page of this post. The primary aim of the project was to produce sensitively conceived and skillfully executed ‘counter-images’ (to use the sociologist Michelle Brown’s term) to the kind of State photography that so problematically constrains our understanding of incarcerated individuals. The students had very limited visual references to create the portraits; as we were in the midst of the COVID pandemic, they were not able to visit the students at Stateville. They did have access to the students’ newly composed autobiographies, which appear, in edited form, on the UWW section of PNAP’s website. And Jason facilitated some communication between the artists and students during the process. Reginald BoClair mentioned in a Zoom meeting, for instance, that he wears an Ankh necklace. And Helen ended up adding that to her portrait of Reginald. Jason asked Juan Luna if he had a space in his front teeth, and then Ruth added a little space there. The original paintings will be shown in one or more upcoming PNAP exhibitions, and then gifted to loved ones of the students. Most people who encounter the portraits will encounter them through this webpage, which will serve as a durable testament to the care and creativity of the artists. (Special thanks to Eliza Gonring, who designed the beautiful webpage, and to Gabrielle Christiansen, for her keen editorial assistance.)
I am a visual artist from the southwest side of Chicago. I am currently studying Art Education at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and will graduate in the spring of 2023. I have worked with various mediums, but often find myself returning to acrylic paint; with painting I can create works of art that are intimate and small in scale that explore personal ideas. I have contributed to community murals in Kilbourn Park and Logan Square alongside AnySquared Projects, the Logan Square art network that I am a part of. With the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council, I have facilitated large-scale mural painting projects for Chicago teens during the last two summers. Working behind the scenes to make art opportunities happen for young people is what I am most interested in. Last summer I was in charge of organizing art events for young children at Unity Park’s “Art in the Park” and at the Glenwood Arts Festival, where I did budgeting work and organized volunteers. I owe a lot of my organizing strengths and capabilities to my dear friend and mentor, Tracy Kostenbader. I was happy to learn about the Prison + Neighborhood Arts/Education Project and the work that they are doing in Chicago–their focus on art and community building is very inspiring.
When selecting materials for this project, I wanted to try something different than stretched canvas. I had experimented with a few wooden plaques last semester and enjoyed the sturdy feel; in the past I have cut out wood to create a triptych with hinges. I looked at the different options at Michael’s and gravitated towards the oval-shaped panels. They seemed dignified to me. I thought of how they would look on the walls of someone’s home, and how they could function as an important object there, the way a religious image or a mirror would.
I wanted to use a range of paints. I like using mattes and glossy mediums to create additional contrast on the surface of the painting. I like how they react with light. And I like using metallic and neon paints to add complexity to my paintings, and how they force your eyes to look at specific sections and around them. They keep your eyes moving and discovering things. In my other work, I use glitter and sequin, too. I’ve been playing with lava gel, a granular sand-like medium, but I knew from the beginning that I wouldn’t use that for this project because I didn’t want to be too experimental.
I knew painting the portraits would be a challenge technically. I had painted mostly self-portraits and, although I was confident I could paint other people, I had never really painted men before. An added layer of difficulty was the lack of visual reference material–because of this, I relied on state ID photos as my main references for their portraits, together with autobiographies written by the students, which helped me to make decisions about the backgrounds. I took notes while reading each student’s bio. I was interested in the themes: hope, love, education, family, as well as the students’ individual passions. I brainstormed symbolism, what images would convey particular ideas and feelings. I used Pinterest as a resource to develop the backgrounds, as opposed to Google; in Pinterest I had already saved images of pretty things I wanted to paint and added more images as I took notes. For example, when reading about Reginald’s interest in African history, I looked at examples of African design. I came across some beautiful textiles and painted a variation on them. I leaned towards imagery to which I was already very attracted, like flowers and filigree, in conceiving the portraits.
I also took on some smaller challenges. Landscapes intimidate me, and I was worried that Darnell’s background would be over-blended and flat. But as I began to trust myself, I was surprised at the result, and I ended up having fun painting something that felt scary going in. I planned Daniel’s and Michael’s portraits after Darnell’s. At that moment, my mindset was to create something decorative, and I think I let that substrate influence me. I was more worried about movement and framing the face; because of this I painted plain backgrounds, using colors that felt compatible with the biographies. As I have mentioned, to add complexity I painted Michael’s filigree metallic.
With Juan’s painting, my approach was altogether different. At first I thought of using several symbols from Chicano culture, but I realized that was too busy for such a small space, and I also didn’t want to take away from the portrait. I reviewed Aztec codices that would be meaningful and relevant, but I was having a hard time organizing them in a way that worked. Finally, I decided that painting the Aztec calendar would be so badass–I had painted the calendar before, and it is an amazing design to look at in general. I manipulated my references and combined different digital iterations into one that fit the background well. Considering that the calendar is a circle and the painting oval, I had to make some parts smaller or bigger from what is true to the calendar. This design is still framing the face but not interacting with it, like in some of the other paintings. I made the calendar gray, to reflect Juan’s interest in drawing and tattooing, and Chicano art style in general. This choice was interesting because the background has some flat areas, but some areas that suggest it could be stone, as well.
I painted the portraits at home for the most part, but also took them to AnySquared and to work when I was teaching in Millennium Park, where I made progress during my lunch time; many people have come across the paintings in varying degrees of completion. During these times, I would explain what I was working on with PNAP, and everyone thought this project was great. The reach this project has made already is really cool–it reinforces the power I see in socially-engaged art. This project contributes to prison abolition by creating an opportunity for artists to connect with people on the inside, and the paintings also create a presence for incarcerated individuals outside, a presence that disrupts the representations everyone is used to. I appreciate how powerful the act of painting can be. I’ve learned a lot about myself, about what I am able to do, and about the different functions that art-making can have.
This portrait series started out somewhat symbolically and became more biographical as I proceeded. In the beginning, it was important to me that each of the portraits incorporate poses that are contrary to what you see in mugshot/prison intake photographs, with their standardized profile/head-on format–whether that be a 3/4 view or from another perspective entirely. I also wanted to challenge the facial expressions documented in the students’ prison intake photographs. At the beginning of the project, it seemed essential to alter the facial expressions. By the end of the project, though, a few of the portraits retained the expressions documented in ID photos. In an additional attempt to subvert or complicate the state ID photographs, I selected a yellow-orange color for their shirts, which is complementary to Stateville’s ‘prison blues.’ Whereas I knew that clothing in jails/prisons ranges the full spectrum of color, I wanted the color I used to glow; I wanted it to transcend the dull blue of their outfits, while still referencing the basic look of the collared and buttoned shirts worn by all five men. I worked with a dark Tyrian purple to intensify the glow of the yellow-orange; I also chose Tyrian purple for its symbolic association with royalty. Besides the colors, it was important to me to create expressive lighting that interacted with the figures and architectural borders. I wanted the architectural forms to express a relation to the prison but with an openness that would convey possibility or mobility. All together the painted spaces are strange and psychological–it is as if the spaces reflect internal states. I found ways to present light passing through either broken or interrupted stripes, like the bars in a cell. And there are areas where shadows swallow sections whole.
The way I depicted light interacting with the men ranged quite a bit. For Reginald’s portrait, I represented the stripes on the chair, where his shadow cuts the bars, or lines, in half–as if his presence is enough to dispel the formality or tradition embodied in the chair. There is also a depiction of floorboards in the background that echoes the stripes on the left. In the painting of Juan, I modeled the bars after an iron porch door, with a matching iteration of pattern on the siding. I wanted it to look like he was passing over a threshold, with a slight ambiguity about whether it is domestic or carceral. However, I wanted it to seem obvious that he was walking from shadow into light. Daniel’s painting is similar to Juan’s, and the bars in the image appear very present and solid on the left; as the light moves across his head and over to the right, it dissolves. I had some anxiety about the architectonic forms in and around his figure, considering their potential meanings, but arrived at the conclusion, with Jason, that the upper right-hand corner can be read in connection with Daniel’s personal involvement in construction work. This timber-frame architecture relates to the light bars entering from the left, which transform into a framing device/balance on the right.
Michael’s painting went a bit differently. Initially, the stripes in this image were represented in the shadows of drapes inside a window, which were meant to reference the bent bars in the Marshall Project’s newsletter logo. After a discussion with Jason about the historical and racial associations of the red curtains and stage-like setting I had constructed, I decided to change the background to a fence. I liked this as an alternative, due to current political concerns with border fences, which are related to fences in prison yards, and both of which contain bodies at odds with the State. The light, also broken into bars/stripes, peeks through the cracks between the boards. This resonates with numerous autobiographical writings by people who are incarcerated, which include the metaphor of the crack in the wall, through which voices and light might pass. I also included an abstracted, wooden ladder between Michael’s body and the fence. Similar to Michael’s painting, Darnell’s representation also includes props and books on the right-hand side. And, as in the portrayal of Daniel, there are stripes on the left-hand side that dissolve as they move across the wall, which mimics the rhythm of the books stacked to the right. I represented texts that Darnell and his classmates have been reading lately, including volumes by Erica Meiners and Bill Ayers, two of Darnell’s advisors.
As a self-taught painter, I have idiosyncratic ways of layering paint. Although most of my formal knowledge of painting was attained during the past few years, a professor encouraged me early on that I should ‘never start a painting with a drawing on a canvas.’ I wanted this project to be something that I did ‘traditionally,’ not only to elevate the paintings but to ensure the process would be time-consuming and invested. It was also going to allow me the opportunity to use indirect painting methods I had recently learned. My meditation on the faces of Darnell, Reginald, Daniel, Juan, and Michael was inspired by the approach I took to the drawings and paintings I have created as memorials for Mourning our Losses. The UWW portraits connect with my other paintings, in that there is a strong emphasis on light, an evolution of the overall image/narrative, and they took me months to complete.
Altogether, I’m very appreciative of Jason’s feedback. He was integral to the project, as he was the only person involved who had intimate knowledge of the guys’ appearances. Our correspondence sometimes seemed like a game of ‘hot and cold,’ as his suggestions helped motivate the movement of the features changing shape and size, slowly drifting and locking into place, like sheets of floating ice. The co-creative aspect of the project is something that I didn’t initially plan for, but turned to quickly, as there was no way to create these images without an intermediary. The collaborative aspect of this project also affected the way race was discussed and managed within the project. This topic arose multiple times and manifested in various representations, so for both the cohesiveness of the project and ethics-building for myself, I tried to maintain specific standards along the way. My personal life sometimes ate away at the energy I had for creating work, and the time I took to reflect and rest was often unfulfilling. But I printed and put up a short text shared by my friend Ricardo (who also photographed some of these paintings) and this helped: “Allyship fatigue isn’t real. You’re just not used to thinking about race 24/7 since you’ve been able to live without having to think critically about systemic oppression for your survival. Another product of privilege. The validity of your emotions and exhaustion remains, but the relevancy does not.” As this project draws to a close, I reflect upon and value my experience. And, ultimately, I hope my efforts will provide some level of healing to the men and their families, who have been so affected by the violence of incarceration.