Having a solo art exhibition in New York is beyond major — sometimes even a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. But the particular artist, in this instance, whose work, featured in a show called “Inside,” has its opening reception tonight, will not be able to attend because he’s behind bars in a New Jersey prison (and has been for almost two years awaiting trial). Coincidentally, he’s also getting arraigned today. Aside from not being able to take in accolades from art aficionados tonight, he has chosen to remain completely anonymous.
“The artist wanted to remain anonymous, both in order to avoid any possibility of repercussions for him, his case, or his family from publicity. He also wanted to prevent his specific story, or the specifics of the charges against him from overshadowing the artwork itself,” said curator Anthony Santella. The artwork, which ranges from spiritual drawings to mathematical formulas, is truly remarkable when considering his material limitations and restrictions. The artist, who studied at the School of Visual Arts and has worked in both traditional and digital media, is now confined to using a ballpoint pen, brushes made out of toothbrush fibers, Q-Tips, and color dye from M&M’s. We mailed him some questions regarding his artwork and what it’s like to be an artist who also happens to be locked up.
What do you think of your solo show opening without you there?
It’s interesting and in line with the rest of my absurd life. Interesting because in the saturation of connectivity today, it’s interesting to be disconnected quite thoroughly.
Have you always been into art?
Both of my parents were artists. Dad was in advertising and jazz. Mom was in textile design. Now she creates works for churches. My first gig was helping dad with simple layouts. The first one was an AAA pamphlet. When I was six-years-old, maybe seven, I recall painting a desert scene in watercolor, over and over until it looked the way it did in my mind, I must have gone through 20 iterations.
Why is creating artwork important to you?
The composition process calms the storm of ideas that constantly rages in my mind. Unchecked, this storm can become debilitating even painful.
Are you able to share your artwork with other inmates?
I sold copies of my first drawing — probably 40 copies in the time I’ve been here. Just last week I sold another of that first drawing. Mostly everyone in here loves my work even if I hide away in my cell — work requests come by mail for all sorts of stuff.
What sort of feedback do you get from them?
I get lots of “how do you do that with those pens?” I can’t even write with mine.” That kind of stuff.
Do you feel free to be creative while in prison ?
There is the time to be creative and develop ideas, but the tools are a wiggly ballpoint pen, Q-Tips and M&M’s . The other inmates are for the most part psychotic, violent and paranoid, and the officers get spooked if you do anything out the ordinary such as eat, sleep, excrete and be a nasty SOB. So they gave me a lot of trouble the first year until they learned I’m benign in my art endeavors.
I once spent five days in the hole after officers found a knife I made to trim paper with. They have disposed of countless containers of prepared inks from various sources (the best being a soot pigment from burnt plastics this is a common tattoo ink here). The lack of materials and medias and occasional officer is not as much of a hindrance as the overwhelming mindsets bent on hate and destruction or oppression, with gang mentality, that is where the freedom ends.
Does your art hold a deeper meaning to you than before?
I can find deeper meaning in my previous works now that I carry the information of being imprisoned and falling through the cracks of our legals system. That desert painting seems pretty deep right about now. The viewer brings their information set to the image and sees the image reflect themselves so everything is deeper to me now that my information set has expanded by this terrible experience.
Are you trying to convey a different message in your artwork now that your freedom and liberties have been taken away?
Not really, social commentary is really the only other direction I’ve tried regarding my current situation. But it’s awful stuff and mostly forced — I figure my subconscious will present itself in my work for those looking for messages I really try not to think too much about it.
What do you see in the future as far as your work as in artist?
I try not to look ahead right now. Life is too unpredictable — take today for instance. Out of the blue we were locked down for a few hours because someone in the next tier over was found 40 minutes after he hung himself. The various gang members are so unstable that anything can happen at the sound of a mouse fart. So maybe when I get out of this (preferably alive with limbs intact) I’ll have a better view of a future.
What else are you currently working on?
I have two birthday cards and a handkerchief painting to do this week. If I find time I’ll work on a couple story boards I’m developing for when I get out, and attack the ever growing stack of random junk I find interesting and want to do something with. (Most of the stuff from the show is distilled from that stack.)
Reception tonight at 7, The Parish Center of the Church of St. Paul the Apostle, 405 West 59th Street. Art show runs through January 18.