Real Talk

Justice for Some

Swoon 2 photo by Steve Weinik

When Curate This was just an idea, one of the first people we knew we wanted to collaborate with was Jane Golden. Her mantra, “art ignites change,” has rung true throughout her long history with Mural Arts. Jane Golden is the Founder and Executive Director of the City of Philadelphia’s Mural Arts Program, which has created more than 3,800 works of public art in the city of Philadelphia. As a strong voice in Philadelphia’s art community, we are honored to have Jane contribute to Curate This.

-Amanda V. Wagner, co-founder


The National Institute of Justice states that across the country and within five years of release, 76 percent of former prisoners have been re-incarcerated. It’s called the recidivism rate, and it’s awful.

Coming out of prison and re-entering society is an immense challenge. Weaving back into the threads of a daily life, a life that has been interrupted for months or even years, is difficult, complex, ongoing work. It’s work that cries out for help with navigation, for compassionate voices to help explain and connect the journey.

It’s one of the areas in which artists could make a huge difference.

Artists are able to translate societal currents in a way that many of us cannot. Artists could explore the ways in which people emerge from the prison system and reconnect to the world at large. Artists could explore the ways in which systems work or fail for people who can’t always figure out how to navigate them. Artists could explore the human condition of separation and isolation, and the ways in which we all make our connection back into the world.

But artists aren’t doing so in a large scale way. And I think there’s room for artistic intervention in this society-wide epidemic of re-entry failure.

One of Mural Arts’ main programs is Restorative Justice. That phrase, restorative justice, references the process of gathering victims, offenders, and the community, and engaging in healing processes that strengthen our neighborhoods. Restorative justice flips our perceptions of former prisoners, explores the ways that they can make a positive difference within their community, and heals some of the hurt they caused through previous actions. It’s a process that connects well with our core belief, that art ignites change, as community members connect to each other through art, through creating something together, bridging the gap of hurt, confusion, and distrust in a way that words often cannot.

And I’m excited that we’re exploring these themes in a citywide fashion with Open Source, our month long, citywide public art exhibition. Three artists, Sam Durant, Shepard Fairey, and SWOON are taking a deep dive into how we connect back to society and how we can explore these themes through art making.

For Open Source, Sam Durant delved into Philadelphia’s prison system. He met with people in and outside of the prison system, gaining insight into how their lives had been affected. One man, a participant in the workshop, told Sam that going to prison was like getting lost in a maze of systems. The comment sparked an artistic product: Labyrinth, a chain-link fence maze, now installed in Thomas Paine Plaza, across from City Hall. The maze is transparent, but as visitors add objects representing their personal stories to the maze’s walls, it will become opaque, covered with powerful stories and images.

Shepard Fairey, the creator of OBEY Giant, looked at stories of strength after incarceration. He chose two images of people who have found a path back into society—a path that’s been meaningful, positive, and interesting for each of them. Creating murals of both people, Shepard is taking a look at how people who were incarcerated reconnect to the world and asks us if we as a society can forgive.

SWOON took a look at the subject of reconnection through the lens of mental health and trauma. After working with women in a halfway house, at Graterford SCI, and with Mural Arts’ Guild Program, SWOON developed intimate portraits of the people she met, telling their stories through compelling imagery and presentations throughout October.

I’m proud that Mural Arts is shining a light on this, and I think it’s time to see what artists around Philadelphia and the world can create and do to bring attention to restorative justice and our criminal justice system. I can’t wait to see what innovation and new ideas the creative response unlocks. As a city and a country we need to understand that artists are often the most creative thinkers in our society and by supporting them in their work we are helping to solve some of our more intractable problems.

Photo by Steve Weinik, © 2015, SWOON.

More to Read...

Leave a Reply

Be the First to Comment!