UWW Portrait Project
Conversation with Helen, Ruth, and Jason
Conversation about the portrait project, January 17, 2022
Jason: Can you briefly introduce yourselves?
Helen: My name is Helen Sanchez-Cortes. I’m from Little Village, Chicago. I go to SAIC, and I’m studying art education.
Jason: Helen, are you a senior now?
Helen: I have one more year left after this semester, so I’m almost a senior.
Ruth: I’m Ruth, I’m from Greencastle, Indiana. I’ve lived in the Chicago area now for seven or eight years. This is my last semester at SAIC, unless I fail a bunch of classes. [laughs] But hopefully I’ll be done after this. And I’m an MFA student in the painting and drawing department.
Jason: Helen, when you’re done with school, are you interested in becoming an educator?
Helen: Yeah, the program includes K-12 licensing, and I’ll be student-teaching next year.
Jason: I’m going to talk through the timeline and the working conditions for this project… This project began at the end of the last academic year, in May or June 2021. Originally it was going to be a summer project, and then, for various reasons related to the amount of work to be done and Helen and Ruth going back to school, it took up until this month, January 2022. So the timeline was stretched out. We are still in the middle of the COVID pandemic, and the working conditions were informed by the pandemic. For one thing, it wasn’t possible for Helen and Ruth to go into the prison to meet the five UWW students they were going to portray. We had rather limited visual references for them—we had State ID photographs, which are mug-shot-type photographs, and a Zoom recording from the late spring/early summer showing the students in a classroom in the education building at Stateville, but these are not very detailed and of questionable value. That’s kind of what we had. With the exception of one of our degree students, whose case is well-known in the Chicago area, there are not visual references floating around the internet related to the guys before they were incarcerated. Some of them have been incarcerated for twenty or more years. Some of them were incarcerated more recently, but all of them have long or life sentences. So, part of the working conditions involved me asking questions, either on Zoom, when we were meeting them that way over the summer, or–once the fall started–via writing. And then, there were many conversations with Ruth and Helen over email or Zoom as they worked through the paintings—particularly in relation to likeness. Although there are many more interesting things to talk about with respect to the portraits, likeness remains a fundamental issue for mimetic portraiture. And since the paintings will eventually be gifted to loved ones of the students depicted, this seemed quite important. The project, then, took seven to eight months total, and both artists are just about done now.
Our next topic is PNAP and this project. What is your interest in an organization like ours, and this project in particular?
Ruth: When you had asked me to do this, I was already working on a somewhat similar project through an organization called Mourning Our Losses, which creates memorial images for people who have died from COVID while incarcerated, or while in border camps. I was laid off at the beginning of the pandemic, and I started doing that. I was sort of restless, and I wanted something to do to try to make a difference…though I didn’t feel that it was exactly within my power to do anything. So I reached out to an old colleague of mine who has taught at the Indiana Women’s Prison for 20 some-odd years; I used to work with her at a youth enrichment program in my hometown. I’ve been connected to groups that provide services to at-risk youth for a long time. So this PNAP project was within the purview of things I have worked on. I have a lot of friends who are incarcerated, and during the pandemic, a lot of my very fragile, wonderful friends were kind of pushed off the edge and ended up going back to jail for a while. Personally, I think that COVID pushed me to be more proactive.
Helen: Well I was really excited to participate in this project and to be involved in something that PNAP was doing. I liked that this project is kind of layered in how it is bringing different communities together: PNAP, students at Northeastern Illinois University, yourself, as an educator, and us, as artists––that was very appealing to me. With AnySquared Projects, the collaborative network that I am a part of in Logan Square, our belief is in “power through participation.” What we’ll do is, if one of us has an idea for a project, we all get together and kind of make it happen. It could be a mural, it could be a themed exhibition, it could be a program, it could be doing art in the park with children, which is intergenerational––that brings people together from all over the city. That’s the kind of stuff I’m interested in.
Jason: Even though this project is different from anything PNAP has done in the first ten years or so, it is certainly in the spirit of the organization. It brings people together who otherwise might not be together. There are limits the State sets up to educators building community–with the loved ones of incarcerated people, for example. Educators are not supposed to become involved with our students’ families. The State tries to enforce a separation between educational and personal relationships. Of course, this is totally artificial… Ideally we want to build community with systems-impacted people on the inside and on the outside. Besides that, Sarah and I have talked about wanting to involve SAIC students more in PNAP. This kind of special project is one opportunity to do that. It became clear to me last year, teaching the class you took with me, Helen, how many SAIC students are interested in the kind of thing PNAP does. [The course was Art History 4018: Visuality, Criminality, and the Counter-Image—see here for syllabus.] I knew Ruth was interested, having had her in other classes.
Helen, how does this compare or relate to other projects you have done? Ruth partly answered this one already. You’ve done community mural paintings, right?
Helen: I initially answered the question in connection with portraiture. I have experience mostly painting self-portraits. (1)
Figure 1: Helen Sanchez-Cortes, Landscape Narratives, 2019, acrylic and glitter on panel
Helen: I have done a lot of self-portraits, but I have never painted men or people with a skin tone different from my own. So that was a challenge. My work is primarily 2D, acrylic painting of surreal or mixed media approaches. I’ve done some sculptures, and then I’ve also done some multimedia projects, that involve writing, video, performance, research, that are mostly personal. A lot of the artwork I make is either very personal, or is like me teaching an art class or working in a community facilitating an art-making project. So those are the two worlds I live in. I have done a couple of murals as a contributing artist, but also as a facilitator, setting up scaffolds or organizing paint. (2)
Figure 2: BYNC Youth Mural, 2021, 47th and Honore, Chicago, Illinois; Lead artists: Helen Sanchez-Cortes and Josémanuel “Chema” Hernández Canchola
Helen: Then I’ve also done teaching-artist work, showing students how to prime a wall, or project at night, and paint, and stuff like that.
Jason: Helen, one of your community mural paintings, which includes a large butterfly, reminds me of your portrait of Darnell. (3a and 3b)
Figure 3a: Helen Sanchez-Cortes painting Center Butterfly for Kilbourn Park Community Mural, 2017
Figure 3b: Kilbourn Park Community Mural, 2017, Roscoe and Kostner, Chicago, Illinois; Project lead: AnySquared Projects
Jason: Also, the final project you made for the course you took with me, which you called 29 Roses, was super beautiful. And it has a meaningful relationship to the work you’re doing now with PNAP. (4)
Figure 4: Helen Sanchez-Cortes, 29 Roses, 2021, aluminum foil and wire, installation at site of Adam Toledo’s murder, Little Village, Chicago, Illinois
Jason: 29 Roses looks very different from the portrait paintings you made for this project, but it was a work commemorating teens who had died from gun violence in Chicago during the first four months of 2021. And Helen, you made a wonderful video documenting the process of making the foil roses and also the site where you installed it. [Video] Have you shown the work to anyone else outside of that class?
Helen: You know what, I just gave an artist talk to my high school art teacher’s current art class, and I completely forgot to mention it! But, yes, I did a good job documenting that. I should have it on my website.
Jason: Yes, people should definitely see that work. A lot of the final projects for that class were really good. It would be nice for the work to have some life outside of the digital images I have on my computer… Helen, I somehow knew you were interested in portraiture. At some point I saw a painting you made based on a photograph of you when you were little. It also has butterflies in it.
Helen: Yes, I sent an image of the painting to you when you emailed and asked students if they were interested in this portrait project. I made that painting last year. (5)
Figure 5: Helen Sanchez-Cortes, Spiritual Windburn, 2021, acrylic and glitter on canvas
Jason: Ok, yes. I want to ask both of you now about the prehistory of portraiture in your work. Has portraiture had some significant place or not? Then, working in series. Have you worked in series before?
Ruth: Sure. I source a lot of imagery from religious portraiture and history paintings. [See here for more of Ruth’s paintings] I was interested in looking at those as an inspiration to elevate these paintings a bit more. But it was also because I grew up in an area where I didn’t really see contemporary art. This was the extent of my art history for a very long time, which heavily influences the way I create images. And, on working in series…I’ve not made a series of work like this before. The majority of my paintings tend to be created as a means of me working through something about which I am thinking in an abstract way. So my paintings tend to reflect whatever my concerns may be at any one time. So if I have a series of work, it is me going back and then being able to see, oh this all sort of fits together. I do a lot of that in hindsight. I think SAIC in particular really pushes artists to create in series, but I think that’s just because they want us to make money. I don’t think there’s really any motivation other than that. So I have developed a resistance to creating works in series. This was a little different.
Jason: Your Mourning Our Losses work seems related. Were you doing mostly pencil drawings for that, Ruth?
Ruth: It was a mixture. I did some pencil drawings, a lot of vector drawings on my iPad. (6 and 7)
Figure 6: Ruth Poor, Susan Farrell, 2020, pencil on paper, Mourning Our Losses
Figure 7: Ruth Poor, Ivan Gonzales-Ramirez, 2020, digital drawing, Mourning Our Losses
Ruth: So it’s a little bit of both. Also, there were some people who liked the photographs they submitted, they were just poor quality, so I went in and tried to fiddle with the images, filling things in on my own, defining features.
Jason: Helen, you’ve said that your relationship to portraiture has been mostly through self-portraiture. When we had our first meeting, you mentioned you are also interested in religious icon painting, and this comes through in some of your portraits. As an art historian, thinking about the history of portraiture in the Western world, one major account traces this history back through half-length or bust-length Christian icon paintings on panel. Aside from self-portraiture in your work, Helen, did you have any other previous interest in portraiture?
Helen: Yeah, I love portraiture. I’ve mostly only painted myself, or different versions of myself, trying to explore my identity. It’s really exciting to me. When I paint myself, it’s almost like taking a picture, because I can manipulate my background and the colors and my attitude as I am painting. And when I look back at it, I can see this moment in my life. The next thing I want to do with painting, and so this project was good for me, is I want to paint other people. Also, my interest in religious iconography isn’t something that I have fully realized yet, but it is something I want to keep exploring.
Jason: The other question, Helen, was about working in series…
Helen: I took an oil painting class, and I made two paintings that I wanted to become a series. The paintings are kind of my take on Lotería cards, which is like Mexican bingo. The paintings depict me and my sister. It’s a series of two…if I could make more, I would love to. They’re really big. Except for mural paintings, I haven’t painted this big before.
Jason: Before we get into some more specific questions about your portrait series, can you remind me of the dimensions of your paintings? Yours are a little bit larger, right Ruth?
Ruth: Mine are 20 inches high and 16 inches wide.
Jason: And they’re oil on canvas.
Helen: Mine are 11 x 14 inches, and oval shaped. And they’re acrylic on wooden panel [knocks on panel].
Jason: Besides the size and shape, both of your portrait series have other relationships to traditions of portraiture in a Euro-American context. Oval is rather unusual now, and even historically it wasn’t super common, except for during the 17th and 18th centuries, into the 19th century, especially for portraiture. If you walk around an art museum, you can see ovular Baroque or Rococo portraits. This is a time period when there was a great deal of interest in the oval as a shape. In our class, Helen, when we looked at artists trying to disrupt the conventions of mug-shot-type imagery, I don’t remember anyone messing with the framing shape in their counter-images. It seems so obvious, we don’t really think about it, but mug shots are typically square or almost square, and rectilinear on the edge. That’s a significant part of what those images are and how they look. But the edges are a place where there is an opportunity to do something different. I got the sense you came across the oval panels by chance, in a store, and the encounter kind of lined up with you starting work on the project. Is that the case?
Helen: I don’t know, my intuition told me that an oval is fancy, and I was elevating the portrait by making it look official in a way. It was something I wanted to play with. The human face is a similar shape.
Jason: Both of you were interested in elevating the depictions, and in the process, we discussed this some. On the oval as a form, you’re quite right to associate it to cultural elevation, or refinement. And, the allusions to religious icons are elevating. But, of course, portraiture itself, for most of its history, has been elevating.
Helen: In the past, I’ve also cut wood into a triptych that I painted and collaged on. I’ve been wanting to make paintings on, like, a circular canvas or star-shaped or other shapes like that.
Jason: Ruth, with yours, what was your motivation working at that scale and with that format? Are your portraits about the same size as your other paintings?
Ruth: In comparison to some of my other work, they are maybe a bit smaller. But for these, I wanted to reference the size of portraiture you might see in something like a museum setting. The overall shape was important to me because I planned to have so many angular sections, or areas that have geometric movement within them. These seem to reference the boundaries of the frame. And, in the class I TAed for this last semester, Art and Esotericism, we discussed the boundaries of paintings as this transitory space between what’s known and what’s unknown. In the back of my mind, I think I connected what was going to happen in the interior of the painted space with the parameters of the painted image.
Jason: One thing that interests me about the two series of portraits—and this probably has to do with the constraints of the project, for which I was able to provide you very limited visual references, and you weren’t able to go into the prison to meet the students you were depicting, or to sketch them from life—is that neither of you show the students’ hands in your depictions. Mug shots virtually never show hands. In different circumstances, you might have had more information, to extend the depictions downward and to include hands. That would be another way of working against the conventions of State photography, which does so much to delimit the representation of incarcerated people. Did either of you think of including hands? Or did it seem from the start like that would require too much invention?
Ruth: I don’t think I considered putting hands in, in light of the amount of information we started with. I was trying to think of what I could realistically do, even though there was, by the end, quite a lot of invention in these paintings. I didn’t want to be too fanciful when I was creating them.
Jason: I hadn’t really thought about it until I noticed that neither of you show hands. Then I realized one of the ways the mug shot works is by cropping out hands. Hands are such a signifier of agency in visual culture. If you think about art of the early 20th century and social realism, including in places like Mexico, with artists like Rivera or Orozco, or in the US, with someone like Ben Shahn, strong hands are so important. In the last century, hands became a major signifier of leftist politics, including labor activism, anti-racist movements, etc. Your paintings made me think more about this, in the context of conventional depictions of criminality.
Consistency of format and scale connect each of your series of portraits. I would like to talk about some of the other connecting features. In your portraits, Ruth, palette serves to connect the five paintings, and you play with light in each of them, as well. I’m curious what else you might say about your approach to connecting the paintings across the series.
Ruth: Format and scale, definitely. They all have similar cropping. I use the same sort of button-up for the clothing. But, again, a lot of that was based on the photographic information given to us. Most of my invention was founded in color, and the representation of these (maybe) interior spaces, with the stripes as well. So the color I had—that sort of yellowish-orange color—I had that for their shirts, which is such a vibrant yellow, it really glows. Placing it next to that deep Tyrian purple—my special purple paint—it added to the quality of light I was trying to represent in each of them. I wanted the light to be something where you couldn’t tell if it was natural or artificial. Sometimes there are multiple light sources; I sort of think of light sources as being presence in some way, or connection with something else. The colors really helped push the relationship with light and the symbolism of light in the paintings. And with the stripes, I wanted it to reference bars, or stripes in uniforms, any sort of uniformity and repetition, and I wanted these bars not to be blatantly bars or a boundary, but these can be seen in domestic spaces, too. Sometimes I wanted it to look like light shining through blinds, or shining through structures. I wanted there to be stripes that made you think about the situation that each of these men are in, but also have connections to something other than the carceral system, opening up the possibilities of what that space could be, as occupied by these men. It looks like a mixture of an architectural interior space and a psychological interior space.
Jason: With stripes in domestic interiors, I also think of wallpaper and upholstery. You seem to be playing with the relationship between oppressive architecture and interior decoration. You make stripes and bars into something other than what they are in the carceral system, even as they relate back to what they are there. At Stateville, it is only a small number of people who literally wear stripes, and, as far as I have seen, it is green and white stripes. But bars are a very real presence, whether you are a visitor or educator or someone incarcerated there. So those are a few things with your paintings—color, light, certain formal units, like stripes, bars… In our class, Helen, I was going to teach some work on the history of prison clothing, but I was dissatisfied with the quality of the writing on the topic. I found a fairly interesting essay on the history of striped clothing, going back to the Middle Ages. I’ll have to share it with you.
Helen, I’d like to ask you the same question, about how you connected your series of portraits, beyond things we’ve already discussed.
Helen: Something I kind of regret and didn’t really think about until now is the shirts. I painted them all blue, now I’m thinking I could have painted them any color, but that’s okay. With the backgrounds, I didn’t really have a plan going into it. I remember reading the students’ bios, wanting to be inspired by what I was reading, in making the backgrounds. So I would take notes and then read through them, and think, let me see what I can do. That’s kind of the direction I went with it. In terms of the way they relate to each other, and as I boil it down, that’s just kind of my style. A friend of mine was like, “Oh, I can see you were inspired by Kehinde Wiley’s work.” I was like, oh, I see that, totally. I can definitely see that.
Jason: You were both thinking about how to make paintings that were not just painted versions of mug shots, despite the fact that the main visual references I had to give you were State ID photos, which are a variation on a mug shot photo. How did you think about your paintings’ relationship to the mug shot? How did you work with and against the visual references I was able to give you?
Helen: I used the State ID as my main point of reference, and I tried to work with it, I suppose, more than against it. I told myself, the reality is that the mug shot does exist, it’s available on a public website, it is there. But, at the end of the day, it was only a reference. I was trying to do what I could to create an image that really had the likeness. But then, as I was painting it, I painted it like I would a self-portrait or any other painting, and tried to just have fun with it, and make the face. I also played with the expression. I tried to make a smile where I could [e.g. with Dan’s portrait]. I didn’t want to make anything up, but I tried to create my own image that was different from the reference.
Jason: When you were doing the sketches, you mentioned something about taking the mug-shot-type images and putting them in a computer program and fiddling with the head positions.
Helen: Yes, I did put them in Photoshop, and I tried to adjust the tilt of some of the faces.
Jason: That’s very interesting, process-wise. It went a long way. Certainly, there are more blatant ways to resist the mug shot. But mug shots tend to constrain the heads of persons depicted, and something as simple as trying to get a more natural head position, which isn’t produced by the close confrontation of a particular sort of camera setup with a person who has been arrested or incarcerated. In this way, you were able to work with and against the visual reference material. How did you do that in Photoshop?
Helen: [Laughs] I’m not the best at Photoshop and that stuff, but it was a 3D tool. I made the image into a three-dimensional object, with just that one plane being the photograph, so then I was able to move it around.
Jason: That is a different approach to adjusting the heads than in Ruth’s. Ruth, you also wanted to alter the head positions, but did so more dramatically. The head and body positions in your paintings could not possibly be mistaken for those of prison ID photographs. In light of the limited visual references you had, that must have required conjecture or imagination, and looking and looking again. How would you reply to this question about working with and against the conventions of the mug shot?
Ruth: Yes, like you said, I wanted to challenge those head positions. I tend to complicate my paintings in general, and that’s one of the things I wanted to do in these portraits, as a means of resisting that head-on position, or the profile image that is often paired with it. I wanted to invent these ways so that the bodies looked more at ease and a little less rigid.
Jason: When you started out, Ruth, you had some unusual angles on some of the heads, and these changed over time. With your picture of Dan, we were looking down on his head a bit, and that squared up more as time went on, as you worked on the picture. (8)
Figure 8: Ruth Poor, Daniel Perkins, 2021, oil on canvas (in progress)
Jason: Did you rely on the State ID photos to collect information that you then spliced together in the paintings in a different way? Did you find you had to imagine a lot still?
Ruth: It was a bit of both. I knew early on that because I was complicating it, not just replicating the photograph, it was going to require meditation on the photograph, which I think was significant for me. It was important that I spend a lot of time looking at these and watching the Zoom recordings over and over. As you said, as I was ‘splicing’ the images together, they are combinations of the mug shot photos along with some of the screenshots that I would take from the recordings. I found the Zoom imagery not to be that helpful, in part because the camera was at an angle looking down. Dan’s originally started off that way, because I think I took something from the Zoom imagery, but I didn’t like the idea that we were looking down on the figures, so I moved back to the State ID images again. And it started to shift a bit more. The Zoom angle changes the shape of the chin. I also had an issue with Darnell’s portrait, because I used the Zoom footage and the perspective, and the foreshortening that happened, changed the way his face looks in comparison to the State ID photos. So I tried to put all of these things together, but it was just as much imagining in a lot of ways. What was most difficult was paying as much attention as I can to this little information, and going back and forth.
Jason: Helen also said that the Zoom recording ended up being of limited value, on account of the quality of the recording, and perspective, etc.
You have both talked some about the relationship between your work and other art, whether historical or contemporary art. Is there anything else you’d like to say about that?
Ruth: I am kind of skeptical of the way I was trying to elevate the paintings, in that my solution for elevating the portrait was to copy artworks that are in a museum. The solution that I had for elevating it was mimicry of older systems of portraiture. I am still trying to decide how I feel about that, and whether it was the best solution or not.
Jason: When you started out, Ruth, some of the historical underpinnings of your portraits seemed obvious. But, if the final solutions you came to have a relationship to historical portraiture, it is nowhere near as obvious as it was in your first efforts. Your portrait of Michael, for example, originally had curtains, which feature in hundreds of years of Euro-American portraiture. And the position of his head seemed connected to earlier portraiture. By the time both of you arrived at your solutions for the series, it was not easy to categorize your solutions in terms of either historical art or contemporary art. While it makes sense that someone looking at Helen’s paintings might, in certain respects, think of Kehinde Wiley, personally I like Helen’s paintings better than a lot of Wiley’s paintings. Part of it is the scale. A lot of his works are gargantuan, and they remind me of bombastic historical portraits of the aristocracy. Both of your series pay attention to the fact that these are probably going to end up hanging in someone’s house. The paintings are more modest and intimate in scale.
Helen, did you have anything else to say about historical or contemporary relationships?
Jason: Okay. One other thing I want to mention, and Ruth, you may have seen my recent note about this to Dan. Some of your pictorial solutions, which are quite different from Helen’s solutions, where there are divisions within the picture and then something on one side of the head, with something different on the other side, they remind me of 17th-century emblematic portraits. I think especially of prints, but this applies to a lot of paintings, as well. Your portrait of Dan, with the beams of light, and the different things happening in different quadrants of the portraits, as they relate to the figure, remind me of this kind of Baroque portraiture. But there are many aspects of your paintings, Ruth, that one could not mistake for historical precedents. While there is a complexity with the light, and the light even seems to have its own life, or its own strange logic, which one finds in Baroque paintings, some of the light (as in your portrait of Michael) is electric, and resonates more with modern and contemporary cultural contexts. I don’t know any historical portraiture that I could really compare to the way the pink of the light plays on Michael’s body.
Helen briefly mentioned reading the students’ bios. I shared the guys’ drafts of their bios relatively early in the process, then we revised these for the PNAP website (page down here). But the content was basically the same in the drafts. This was one of the few places in the process where you received a good deal of information from the students. It was not necessarily what they wanted to go into a portrait of them, but autobiography is a parallel mode of expression to portraiture. Were there things either of you learned in the bios that were especially important to you as you developed the portraits?
Helen: They were all really great. The one that really stuck with me was Darnell’s. There was a lot of talk about love, and this was really moving. Many of the students have interests that are similar to mine, and it made me want to meet them, talk to them. Some of them are interested in working with the youth, and I was like, I want to talk to these guys! That was exciting.
Jason: Besides Dan saying you should put him in a hat, Ruth, which you tried to do and then changed your mind, were there other things in the bios that were important to you? Helen’s backgrounds sometimes reference the students’ academic interests—like her background for Reginald is based on African textile designs (9a and 9b)
Figures 9a and 9b: West African ‘Ankara’ print designs
Jason: and her background for Juan depicts a famous Aztec relief sculpture. (10)
Figure 10: Aztec, Calendar Stone or Piedra del Sol, late 15th century, basalt, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City, Mexico
Jason: Ruth, your paintings don’t reference the Depth Areas so specifically.
Ruth: I also really liked the bios. When I was reading through them, I was paying attention to tone. I don’t know what exactly I was looking for, but I was struggling to invent these expressions…I was hoping to glean some sort of…I don’t really know what I was looking for. [laughs] When I read about the hat, I was like, okay, well, I’ll put a hat on Dan. Then after I got the hat, Jason was like, “No, I really like the bald head.” [laughs] So I took out the hat. Like Helen said, I’ve never really painted men before, and especially not bald men. [laughs] So I had, like, this real issue with painting the head shapes. Normally I just paint a lot of women, and I put some hair up there or whatever. [laughs] So that was different for me. The hat was the most literal thing I took out of their bios, but the rest of the time, since I couldn’t meet them in person, I was trying to pick up cues from the information in the bios.
Jason: Do you have something to add, Helen?
Helen: Earlier when we were talking about connections to historical or contemporary art, and Ruth, the choices that you made with the light shining on their faces, this reminded me of a painting that I saw at the National Museum of Mexican Art. It is part of their permanent collection. I looked for the name of the artist and I found it. It’s Elsa Muñoz. The specific painting is called Drifting Sun. (shares images of Muñoz’s works)
Ruth: Thank you.
Jason: Thanks, Helen.
I have been sending the students good color images of the portraits, as you are finishing them, and Dan sent back a note about how he really likes Ruth’s portrait—how it helps him to see himself differently—and I shared it with her. He also said that the portrait made him think about the reasons he wears a hat all the time, and how he is self-conscious about being bald. As someone who is balding and wears a hat a lot, [laughs] I understand. I’ve worn hats since I was young, but I suppose now part of the reason I wear a hat is because of baldness. So I wrote Dan a response, and we’re going to start our own bald men solidarity group. In his response to you, Ruth, it is clear that you made Dan see himself in a different way. This project is largely about trying to challenge people, especially people who are not involved in prison abolition, to see our students in different ways—to work against the very damaging, even demonizing, images of criminality that circulate widely in our culture. But it is also about providing the students with alternate images of themselves, which are more sensitive or positive. Rather than merely recording a likeness, these portraits can serve as lenses for the students to see themselves anew. To have a skilled artist expend a lot of time, thought, and care on the creation of a portrait, this imputes a kind of value, through the representation. There may be discrete things to take away from an individual portrait, beyond that, as well. But I would not have guessed when we started the project that one of your paintings would make Dan feel better about his baldness. [laughs] This is not really the kind of thing you read about in art history writing on portraiture and what portraiture does.
Ruth: [laughs] I definitely printed off Dan’s note…I was like, oh Dan! I didn’t cry…I was close…but that is the first time I have had someone tell me that my art has affected them in a certain way. In a gallery setting, people come up and are schmoozy and tell me bullshit, and I’m like, “K thanks, bye.” But this was heartfelt, and I’m glad that I could do that for him.
Jason: There are other interesting issues related to reception with this project. I mentioned to Ruth at one point that people at Stateville would see images of your portraits in progress in our inside newsletters, and this is such a different context for the reception of art than a gallery or museum. Hundreds of people encounter the newsletter, and they are viewing the portraits in reproduction there. Not only our students, but their cellmates, who may not be in our program, and friends, or other people they know.
This project is associated with our higher education spoke, specifically the University Without Walls bachelor’s degree program. Ruth and Helen, you were depicting our five current degree students, who are on track to graduate later this year. I want to ask you both about the context of education and how that was relevant to your work on the portraits?
Ruth: Throughout the project, you sent me quite a lot of supplementary reading, which inspired some of my own research. Also, I’ve been thinking of going into education for a very long time, so education is always in the back of my mind, to push myself more, to learn more. I think it’s really important for prisoners to have access to those same epiphanies, or transformative experiences that come through education. The longer I’ve worked on this project, it has made me realize how art and education feed into one another. The art functioned as a way for me to process my self-education.
Jason: Some of your solutions, particularly with the light and darkness, and the play of light on the figures, as well as the relationship between the light and the space, strike me as a really interesting way to think about things like enlightenment, or education. You have some overt signifiers of education, like the bookshelf behind Darnell, but that appears only in the one picture, and it is not a stock background, repeated across the series. There’s a long history, especially in the depiction of white men, of using books in portrait backgrounds as a way of relating education, or knowledge, to status and power. Ruth, since heads are so important in these works, the depictions lend themselves to reflection on, say, knowledge, wisdom, or education, all of which are traditionally associated with the head.
Helen, with yours, some of your backgrounds are related to the guys’ academic interests, like Reginald’s and Juan’s. What else would you say about education in relation to your portraits, or education more generally and this project?
Helen: Yeah, there were a lot of opportunities for education. Like I was learning from them, in order to make the paintings come to life. I was learning technically. Much of it was new to me, and I was trying to put things in my toolbox, to remember them for later. It was also a learning opportunity for the people around me. It was interesting to explain what I was doing to my mom, who is an immigrant. It opened up conversations with people around me about the prison system. They were really excited to hear that I was doing something like this. It made me feel good about what I am pursuing with education and working with youth and stuff like that, because I feel like that’s something that’s not very valued. It made me feel like the things that I am able to do matter.
Jason: Thank you, Helen. I would also like to talk to you about materials. Ruth mentioned the Tyrian purple, which is a very special paint, made from the secretions of sea snails, and which has been associated with the depiction of royal or other powerful people since antiquity. So, with both of your materials, are there things you’d like people to know about your choice of those materials? About what’s possible with the different materials, or what made them appealing for the project? Why did you choose your materials?
Helen: I used acrylic. I am familiar with it. It dries quickly. I was able to go over things if something wasn’t going well. My technique is primarily wet on wet, so I’ll layer paint, and paint is still able to move around. I use basic acrylic paints, nothing too fancy, so it’s accessible, if I were to try to teach someone how to make a similar painting. Then I used some metallic acrylic paints. I wanted to use more, but the original background for the painting of Darnell was all silver, and it looked really cool, and it would shift, but then I realized that when it comes time for me to scan it [to make the image that would appear on the PNAP website] I was going to have some problems. (11)
Figure 11: Helen Sanchez-Cortes, Darnell Lane, 2021, acrylic on panel (in progress)
Helen: I didn’t want to deal with it, so I sanded and painted over it. But in Michael’s painting, I did use a metallic black that has a sheen to it. In person, as you are walking side to side in front of the portrait, you should be able to see that. I wanted to use more of it throughout, but I was afraid it wouldn’t behave for me on the scanner.
Jason: We didn’t necessarily discuss it that much, but the issue of how the portraits translate to digital images was important, since the way most people will see them is on our website. The original paintings will likely be shown in an exhibition or two, but then they’ll be given to loved ones of the students, and then live in a more private setting. I also really liked your first silvery background with Darnell, but I could see in the image you shared that it might not translate well via scanning.
Helen, was part of the appeal of acrylic that you wanted bright, flat color? Or was it more that, if you are going to paint paintings at this point in your work, acrylic is what you know best?
Helen: It definitely comes down to experience. My ex-boyfriend stole my oil paints, so I don’t even have oil paints to work with, and I wasn’t going to buy a whole set. So, it’s what I had on hand, it’s what I know how to work with best at this point. And I don’t really use watercolor a whole lot. I don’t have mastery over watercolor or gouache the way I do over acrylic.
Jason: With the issue of color, I was also thinking…PNAP students talk about how drab the environment is at Stateville. You can see it when you go in there. It is not a colorful place at all. Despite the fact that they don’t wear super dull, earth-tone outfits, they wear blue outfits instead, most of them end up not liking the clothes they wear, since they have no choice in clothing. Even though you show the students in their blue shirts, Helen, the blue is mostly very crisp and exciting, and the overall chromatic brightness of your paintings is at odds with the vibe at the prison.
Ruth, can you tell us the story of the Tyrian purple? Where did it come from?
Ruth: I had it before the project began, and it was kind of an impulse buy. The cookies on my computer led me to it. There was a YouTube video that popped up of an artist in Canada who creates his own pigments. He makes a mummy brown, where he creates his own leather and then breaks it down. So he tries to create these pigments as traditionally as possible. I don’t know if he crushed all the snail shells for the Tyrian purple. [laughs] I don’t know how you source snails anymore. Regardless, I wanted to get some to try it out. It is an incredibly versatile color. It has more of a range than a lot of the other colors that I have. Straight out of the tube, it almost looks black, it is so, so dark. Then depending on how thinly you brush it out, if it is on white, a very thin layer of it, it almost looks like a fluorescent pink. So it moves. That’s actually what the pink tone through Michael’s portrait is, Tyrian purple over a layer of white, glazed on top of that. It’s an expensive pigment, in that it takes a lot of labor to find all of these little snails and then to create the paint itself. You probably know more than me about the history of it, but the color is being used to represent monarchy and other people of power, and the color purple is a signifier of power. So I wanted to take that color and try to elevate those paintings. I have taken classes in drawing, but I am a self-taught painter, so there are a lot of things I am just now learning in grad school, like glazing methods. I had a studio visit with Arcmanoro Niles, who creates these really amazing contemporary portraits of Black Americans in the South. And the way he uses glazing is incredible in his portraiture. We talked about the seductiveness of oil paint and what you are able to represent within layers of glazing. When I am putting something down on a painting, I am sort of blocking it in, in a gradient, usually in something that’s a bit more neutral. Then coming back with color, and very lightly glazing on top of it, and making alterations from there. I wanted to practice those new techniques that I had learned and also build up the layers of paint to create skin tones that were prismatic, or to capture as many layers or fractals of color as I could within the skin tones in the portraits.
Jason: I want to ask, too, about the other colors you were using, Ruth. What were the other main colors? There’s the yellow, then what else?
Ruth: I decided at the beginning that no matter what else I do, I am using the purple. I also didn’t want the blue of the clothing they wear…I didn’t want any blue in the paintings. I think Dan’s eyes might be blue, [laughs] so I kind of tamped those down a little bit. I wanted something that was complementary, but orange is complementary to that, and I didn’t want orange clothing either, which I felt was even more blatantly prison wear. I settled on a yellow-orange as a complement to that. By ‘complement,’ of course I mean complementary colors, how they are across the color wheel from each other.
Jason: I thought about this choice a lot. In some prisons, people do wear yellow, including in Illinois—just not the prison these guys are at. One thing that would be strange about painting them in random clothing, like street clothes…I’m not sure how well that would work. It would seem arbitrary. But painting them in something other than what they wear is interesting. Nobody has said anything to me one way or the other about the yellow they are wearing in yours, Ruth, but… On the other hand, Helen worked with the color they do wear, though the shirts don’t take up much space at the bottom of the paintings. And then Dan is wearing his blue hat. Ruth, your shirts seem to take up more space. There is something at least potentially rhetorically valuable in the realism of showing them wearing what they wear. So I can see arguments in different directions on this. Unless you talked with them, to get very specific information about the clothes they’d like to be wearing in their portraits, and you shared that information somehow together with the paintings, it would seem arbitrary and not especially meaningful. I also thought, with your solution, Ruth, about yellow as the color of hope. I felt there was a reference to hope or perseverance in yours, as well, Helen, particularly with the tree you included in Dan’s portrait, which I read as a plum tree. In Japanese art, plum trees, which blossom in the winter, have that association. Other PNAP staff members have identified that tree differently, though. Eliza sees it as an olive tree, and I was like, well those are really big olives! And the other day, Gabby, who is new, said something about it being a fig tree. We never talked about it, but I love the tree as a formal feature, and how it moves both behind and in front of the figure. What type of tree is it? You don’t have to say if you don’t want to, if you’d like viewers to have the freedom to assign different meanings there.
Helen: Let it be a mystery forever. [laughs] My reference was an olive tree.
Jason: It is an olive tree?
Helen: Yeah [laughs], but it could be anything.
Jason: I was examining the leaves, and the leaves kind of looked like the leaves on a plum tree (based on my Googling). And then I was thinking about the symbolism of plum trees in Asian art, which made sense to me. But we never talked about it.
Helen: I was looking at olive trees. The references were illustrations, so there was already another layer of separation there.
Jason: Okay, I wanted to ask…
Early in the project, we talked about the significance of glasses at Stateville, and how the longer a person is incarcerated, the more likely it is that their glasses will break, or they’ll need a new prescription, and they will have to buy glasses from the State. These glasses are made of this rubbery material, in a stock shape, and a lot of the guys don’t like them. So glasses can become an important part of one’s self-expression. When I met Reginald a couple years ago, he had very distinctive glasses, and I was telling you about them, since I thought it could be good to show him in those glasses in the portraits. But those glasses broke a while ago, and he has new glasses now, so I didn’t have an image to show you. You both depicted Juan in glasses, too, though his glasses are less distinctive. But when I think of what Juan looks like, his glasses are definitely a part of it, since I always see him wearing them. And with Juan you had some Zoom footage of him in his glasses, at least. I’m curious about the challenge of adding glasses, and if you’d like to say anything about that. Helen’s last bit of work is to add glasses to her portrait of Juan, (12a and 12b) but Ruth, you could respond to this one.
Figure 12a: Helen Sanchez-Cortes, Juan Luna, 2022, acrylic on panel (in progress)
Figure 12b: Helen’s mock-up for Juan’s glasses, 2022, ballpoint and felt tip pen on paper
Ruth: Juan’s seemed to be okay right away. From the Zoom photographs, I could tell that they were a thinner frame. I could see how they fit on his face. It was easier, because I already had an understanding of where they would go. One issue when I was working with Reginald’s is that he was pushing a three-quarter turn, with the positioning of his head, so there was just a slight change in angle with the glasses, too. Really all I had as a description is that you said they look like the glasses of a character on a TV show. I’m like, I don’t know who that is, because I have never seen that show. While I could see the ratio of glasses to his face on all these different screenshots from the show, but how they would fit on Reginald’s face, I didn’t know. They started off smaller, and then I realized they need to go down much further, almost to the base of the nose. So there was a lot of formatting and reconfiguring with those. But it turned out pretty well, because the sizing and the changing helped create, through the brushstroke movement, this lens formation on the inside of the frames. Reginald’s is one of my favorite portraits.
Jason: It seems like glasses are very challenging but also a nice opportunity for a different kind of visual interest. There’s a lot of other stuff that goes on with the glasses, like in your portrait of Juan, Ruth, where there is this subtle play of shadows on the face. When I showed Reginald, I don’t know, your second-to-last version maybe, and he said they look really good, the issue is just rounding the edges of the frames. (13) I couldn’t remember exactly what went on at the edges of the glasses. Showing him was the best way of checking whether they look right, since he is the one who wore the glasses.
Figure 13: Ruth Poor, Reginald BoClair, 2021, oil on canvas (in progress)
Jason: We’ve already talked some about the environments you created within the series of paintings—the effects of light and dark and striping and bars in Ruth’s, and the backgrounds in yours, Helen. Helen, is there anything you’d like to add about this? Your backgrounds are a major feature, which structure the portraits. The backgrounds also make the portraits different from State ID photos. The backgrounds relate to the figures, and also, in some cases, to the interests of the person depicted. Are there things it would be important for people to know about the different backgrounds?
Helen: I would describe my approach as decorative. I wasn’t necessarily trying to create an atmosphere. I know in Darnell’s that kind of happens, but that wasn’t necessarily what I was going for. I wanted the backgrounds to be decorative, almost like wallpaper, but to have that engage with the figure. That’s why some of the backgrounds come over the shoulder, or above them, so it is not really a wallpaper. (14)
Figure 14: Helen’s preparatory sketch for Michael Bell, 2021, felt tip pen and graphite on paper
Jason: I also want to ask you both about ideas that developed through the process of making the work, whether in individual paintings or the group as a whole. Were there things you had not decided at the start, but through the process of creating one or more of the portraits, helped to define the series? Were there things you learned through the process that were especially important for your series? This could include things that didn’t work well, if there were specific failures, that led to what you decided to do.
Ruth: I’m immediately thinking of Michael’s portrait. His background went through more changes than the others. You can see it in the process photos, too, how much his portrait changes. (15)
Figure 15: Ruth Poor, Michael Bell, 2021, oil on canvas (in progress)
Ruth: I was originally trying to figure out how I was going to play with stripes and bars, and I was inspired by the Marshall Project’s newsletter logo. They have the bars that are pulled off to the side, almost like a curtain, where it’s being pulled open. Before I could actualize that, Jason made the astute observation that the first version of the background looked like a minstrel stage, which made it super problematic. I had thought of the curtains in terms of historical portraiture. I was trying to figure out if I could push it more, but by the time I finished playing around with it, I was like, no, this has been tainted. So I scrapped that. I felt as though the solution I came up with after was more interesting, and I liked it much more. Not just for the pink lighting coming through the cracks, but so many autobiographical and poetical texts I read by incarcerated people allude to speaking through cracks, trying to communicate through cracks to the outside world. So I was thinking of the fence and light as being cracks or crevices, which not only allow light through, but which could also enable communication. I was thinking of gates or fences, too, in terms of a prison yard. When I was working with Mourning Our Losses, I was thinking about migrant camps…a lot of contemporary political discussion deals with fences. I felt like the final solution with Michael’s portrait was much better than how it started. But working through that failure, or stumbling step, at the beginning, I was more pleased with the solution I came up with.
Jason: Helen, do you have thoughts about this?
Helen: I think my backgrounds were very different from one to the next. I wasn’t like, oh the olive branches work, now I am going to try the same thing on the next one. I was going for something different every time. In painting the skin tone, there were new tricks I was discovering, in terms of the science of how the paint was behaving. I was like, this is good, this is good…I hope this happens again. I wanted to keep that momentum going. Like I said, I had never painted men before, so I was hoping I didn’t change their facial structure too much or anything like that.
Jason: Thanks Helen. Turning to our closing questions… Now that you have done this project, if you were to do another project, related to incarceration or portraiture of incarcerated people, what might you do? Did the project give you new ideas for future projects?
Ruth: You bringing up hands has already sparked something in the back of my head. I’m going to be thinking about hands a bit more. I’ll be doing more for Mourning Our Losses, too, so this experience will feed right back into that.
Helen: I feel more confident in the things I can do now. And the talk about hands was really inspiring also. Three years ago, I was in the hospital, in an inpatient psych unit, and we only had white copy paper and crayons. And I was trying to draw some people there, and I remember drawing their hands, because that was the only thing where I felt like I didn’t have to ask for permission. It would be cool to revisit that and to think about the other institutions that have these kinds of barriers that separate us, and how we can use art to bring them down.
Jason: Great, thanks Helen. As we are finishing, I’d like to talk about what each of us took away from the project, in terms of who we are as people. It is artificial to separate our work identities from our personal identities, but you know what I mean. I could start… Part of my motivation to give up my professor job and to concentrate on this work has to do with what is most valuable to me. I feel there is greater value in the sort of collaboration and reciprocal exchange that a project like this entails, which is largely undervalued in the world as a whole, and certainly in the university environment in which I was educated and then worked as an art historian. The Humanities is still very much focused on individual work and individual achievement. Many of the things that I have come to find most valuable as an educator are not valued in that system; indeed, that system almost cannot compute their value. When I think of this project, it is about the relationships between different people: you, me, the students depicted, the PNAP community as a whole, the families from which the students come, in some cases your friends, who learned you were working on this project, Helen’s mom, et al. To me, a project like this is far more valuable than if I were to spend this time writing an academic article. The value lies in meaning as it is distributed among different people. It’s about relationships and social ecology. I had to rely on you both being open to that when I asked you to do this, because this was a major investment of time (more, I’m sure, than you imagined), and I could offer you little money. Whatever else the project was for me, it is confirmation of my own intuition that this is the kind of thing I’d like to devote my time to. While there were discrete learning experiences as we went, and things that could be done differently and perhaps better in the future, the models for creative production and assigning value in the world I have come from are totally different from what I think models for creative production and assigning value should be. A lot of that is connected to the problem of individualism and how it structures what we do.
Helen: Everything you’re saying I agree with 100%. For me, I have fun when I’m painting, but I’m more excited when I’m working with people. Sometimes when I am working with youth doing a mural, it’s so layered. Yes, I am working with kids, and the city is paying for that, but I am also engaging with the community at large and residents who have lived there for a long time. All of that stuff is really valuable to me. I feel like I’ve always had a creative mind, whatever that means, but part of what brought me to art education or even college was a concern for the well-being of people and quality of life in places like the hood, where I grew up. Where does that change happen? It’s in opportunities like these. We just need to make that happen. I’ve been a part of a lot of DIY spaces, whether it is making a mural or throwing a punk show in someone’s basement, those things are really important. Now I’m in a place where it’s like, what do I need to do to start my own not-for-profit or be a part of one or get funding to make these things happen.
Jason: That’s part of the challenge of this kind of work. Even if I wanted to, until PNAP received a major grant last year from the Mellon Foundation, I couldn’t really live and do what I’m doing now. There are a growing number of positions for this kind of work, where one can afford to live and do it, but still not that many. Previously I did some of this kind of work in addition to my professor work, because it was important to me, but for very little pay. You may feel committed to something, but you need to pay your rent and you need to eat. So it’s difficult.
Ruth: I feel like I will know more about what I’ve taken away from this with a bit more time. I’ve been looking for ways to position myself as an artist that are not so self-serving. I feel like that’s a discussion I have in my art history classes, my seminar courses. There seems to be a revival of interest right now in art as a means of activism, but then other people have the position that art doesn’t need to do those things, it can just be on its own. And I have a hard time seeing it that way, in particular because my practice is just so hermetic. It’s all very insular. I do see it as being self-serving, at least in the way that SAIC is setting us up for post-graduation, as artists who are self-sufficient, who make their work, apply to galleries, get grants. I feel like my work is most meaningful when there is some kind of communication or education involved, whether it be through simple studio visits or lessons or something else. In my mind, there needs to be some sort of real-life application of what I am doing for me to feel satisfied. Maybe because I was out of school for a while before I came back to grad school, the college bubble seems so ridiculous to me. I might not make a lot of money from doing something like this, but this project solidifies for me…makes me feel like I’m doing something that matters, vs. just making paintings for some rich asshole to buy. This seems more fulfilling than that.
Jason: Thanks Ruth. I have mentioned to you that the other PNAP staff members who are not so much involved in the visual arts are very enthusiastic about both of your paintings and the idea of special projects like this. It seems to me that part of what they’re responding to is the power of visual art to do things that other mediums associated with our work—maybe writing or other forms of community organizing and activism—can’t do, or can’t do as well. What do you think visual art can accomplish in the context of prison abolition that other mediums can’t accomplish, either at all or as well? Despite the fact that art is very important to PNAP, not everyone is from an art background. You’ve made people see how important painting can be to this work. It’s maybe more obvious with something like a community mural painting how art and our other values interrelate. But do either of you have ideas about what an artist is able to do in a project like this that cannot readily be done in other ways?
Helen: I think it’s like a chain reaction. Like how you said it might be easier to validate a community mural project than this, where it’s us, Zooming and emailing, and we are independently working on some paintings. The chain reaction would be, by us doing something like this, then we could later do it in a way that is more in person and involved or with a larger reach. Right now it is just us two, but if this were a larger project, it would be more students in prison having an opportunity to connect with artists on the outside.
Ruth: I agree with Helen. The mural work that she does, and mural work in general, can be a community-building activity. It doesn’t require a lot of skill. You just need an artist or two to lay out a project, but there are ways to get other people involved to feel like they are building a community or bettering a space, and dialogues happen because of that. In connection to what we’re doing, I’ve been thinking of the history of art—mostly paintings, but also political cartoons and photography—and all the damage that’s done over time to dehumanize people who are incarcerated. And using those same tools to work in opposition to that history is important.
Jason: In certain respects, the role of popular representation in the production of criminality is about as bad in our culture as it could possibly be. It is a little different—earlier periods didn’t necessarily have TV and film, which are perhaps the most powerful—but there is an entire industry that produces show after show, whether reality-show-based, or documentaries, or fiction, that traffic in stereotypes of criminality. It’s insane how many shows there are. It is seemingly endless, the amount of money to be made on shows that portray people as criminal, evil, monstrous, all of these kinds of popular formulations. I said to my young colleague, Eliza, who will work with me on creating the webpage for this project, that in thinking about online representations as some of the most powerful, in terms of limiting our sense of who or what incarcerated people are…that it’s very uncommon to enter the name of someone incarcerated at Stateville in Google and to find any kind of alternative representation to a State ID photo, let alone a sensitive and carefully conceived and skillfully made portrait painting. That you can type in our UWW students’ names now and these representations will come up, that they exist, that people will see them—now there is some kind of counter-image. It’s a simple thing, but I love the idea that, among the lives your paintings will have, the digital versions will present—to anyone with a computer and the internet—alternative ways of seeing people. That’s satisfying, to me, and, I think, our organization.