The Portland Phoenix

Art Seen: The art of the incarcerated

Students rehearse for a dance/theater piece at San Quentin State Prison in "Leaping Men," a 2015 inkjet print, 20x16 inches, by Peter Merts.

In what may be the most ambitious statewide art initiative in years, the prison reform group Freedom & Captivity is mounting 14 actual and virtual exhibitions related to the experiences of inmates in Maine past and present.

The exhibition that first caught my attention is “Freedom & Captivity: Voices Beyond Prison Walls” at the Union of Maine Visual Artists Gallery in the Portland Media Center at 516 Congress St. (Sept. 3-Oct. 29). The UMVA show features 80 works by 40 artists who are currently or have in the past been incarcerated. 

“In Solidarity & Struggle,” by John Gomes, 2021.

When I inquired about the exhibition, Catherine Besteman, the Colby College anthropology professor who coordinates Freedom & Captivity, informed me that the UMVA exhibition is a component of a statewide initiative that includes 13 other exhibitions (including “Art Inside,” at Ticonic Gallery in Waterville, Sept. 13-Oct. 30 and the digital exhibition “Art on Abolition” that launches Sept. 2), as well as documentary work, workshops inside prisons, a calendar of events, a podcast, background information and action steps toward abolition.

“Art Inside” and a companion exhibition at the Portland Public Library called “Art in Captivity” (Sept. 15-Oct. 15 in the PPL windows on Congress Street) will feature photographs of art inside Maine’s five prisons taken by Maine-based photographers Trent Bell, Aaron Flacke, Lesley MacVane, and Sean Alonzo Harris.

The fall lineup also features exhibitions at the University of New England Gallery, Maine Historical Society, Colby College Museum of Art, First Amendment Museum, the Institute of Contemporary Art at Maine College of Art, and SPACE in Portland.

The announcement of the UMVA inmate art show reminded me that back in 2018 some UMVA members disagreed with each other about the issues raised when three works of art by a convicted sex offender were removed from an exhibition at the University of Southern Maine’s Lewiston-Auburn campus. Some called it censorship, others felt it was just being sensitive to victims of crime.

UMVA Portland Chapter member John Ripton, who had work in the controversial USM show, wrote a letter at the time to USM President Glenn Cummings demanding the artworks be restored. As “Freedom & Captivity” prepared to open, Ripton was indeed sensitive to the feelings of crime victims.

“Welcome to 2030,” pochoir with hand embellishments on reclaimed real estate signboard, 2021, by Eno Laget.

“We have diminished the possibility that anyone will be personally offended or traumatized by the works in the show,” Ripton said, “by making the works anonymous.”

There are also Department of Corrections policies related to identifying inmates. Enforced anonymity is just one of the many issues raised by the “Freedom & Captivity” project: How free are you when your name is held captive?

The United States incarcerates people at a higher rate than any other country in the world and, even though Maine has one of the lowest violent crime rates and one of the lowest incarceration rates in the country, we still incarcerate people at a higher rate than most countries.

If you’ve never been imprisoned or had a loved one who was, there’s a good chance you’ve never given serious thought to the moral and social dimensions of prison, let alone to the idea of abolishing prisons as we know them.

“Generally speaking,” Besteman explained, “I would say that folks who identify as abolitionists are opposed to harm and violence, and are in favor of transforming the way we as a society respond to harm and violence. … If punitive imprisonment actually reduced violence, we would have no more violence since we incarcerate so many people.”  

Perhaps those of us who are new to the idea of abolishing prisons can begin educating ourselves by seeing the Freedom & Captivity art shows and considering the issues they raise.

Edgar Allen Beem has been writing about art in Maine since 1978.

The public launch of Freedom & Captivity is Thursday, Sept. 2, at Fox Field on Fox Street in Portland, from 6:30-8:30 p.m. For details about all the Freedom & Captivity exhibitions, go to

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