Roughly two years ago, GSAFE, a Wisconsin nonprofit that works with LGBTQ+ youth, created the Captured photo series to shine a light on the lives of incarcerated youth in the Dane County Juvenile Center less than a mile away from the Overture Center for the Arts.
The series of evocative photos was shot by artist Amber Sowards, who was a member of the GSAFE team at the time of the project’s inception. Since the first iteration of Captured at Arts + Literature Laboratory in 2015, the exhibit has found a home at the Overture Center for the Arts this summer, alongside artist and writer Pat Dillon’s Faces of Incarceration life painting exhibit.
While both projects inherently address a similar theme — the prominent issues of race and incarceration in society — they originate from separate places. Ali Muldrow, racial justice youth organizer at GSAFE, headed the Captured project with photographer Sowards and the artist duo known as Simone and Max (Simone Doing and Max Puchalsky) after 14 months of programming at the Dane County Juvenile Detention Center.
“I got the impression that if other people could see and hear from these kids, hear what it was like for them to be incarcerated, and people could reconcile the fact that they were really children; we as a society wouldn’t want kids to experience what they have to experience while they are incarcerated,” Muldrow said. “When kids are in the Dane County Jail, they never go outside… they’re 24 hours a day, seven days a week in a cage.”
The average kid is at the Juvenile Center for eight days -- some for as little as three hours, some as long as six months. “Most people have never gone their entire life without sunlight for 8 days,” Muldrow said. “If anybody does to a child what the Dane County Jail does to a child, we would call it abuse. To come to the Dane County jail and know on any given day that the majority of children that you’re going to see are kids of color should spark some sense of just how unfair it is.”
Captured will be installed in Gallery II at the Overture Center for the Arts until September 3. In connection with the exhibit, Overture Center will screen Ava DuVernay's Oscar-nominated documentary "The 13th" on July 19 at 6:30 p.m. The film looks at how criminality became a loophole to the 13th Amendment, which makes it unconstitutional to hold someone as a slave, and how racism become a driving force behind the prison industry.
Pat Dillon’s Faces of Incarceration exhibit resulted from collaborations between Dillon and artists of the Atwood Atelier at Winnebago Studios where the paintings were made, and studio owner Phillip Salamone. The life painting exhibit will be at the Overture Center’s Playhouse Gallery from July 13 to August 27. It features portraits of formerly incarcerated individuals and people whose lives have been affected in some way by the prison industry.
The exhibition at the Playhouse Gallery identifies the struggle to reintegrate into the community after having served time. The reception for the Faces of Incarceration exhibit will be on July 22 from 6-9 p.m., including a panel discussion with some of the subjects from the project, followed by a film showing of "Milwaukee 53206," a one-hour documentary “on the lives of those affected by incarceration in America’s most incarcerated zip code,” on August 24.
Through getting to know people who have been in and out of the criminal justice system for the past several years, Dillon has directed the focus of her work to addressing issues surrounding the lives of people in the Madison community who have been formerly incarcerated. “I have a history of taking statistics that we’re familiar with seeing in our newspapers and magazines, and then crafting stories around them,” Dillon said. “Too often we understand that these are issues going on in our cities and communities, but unless we see faces and stories, then we are just a statistic.”
Overture community and education program manager Beth Racette said having both exhibits at once is an opportunity for the audience to get a look at the issues surrounding LGBTQ+ youth incarceration, and life after incarceration for people of color a little bit more in depth.
“The issue of people reintegrating after incarceration is a very complex and difficult thing, and our society does not address it well at all. People’s lives are devastated by that time away,” Racette said. “Right in line with Captured, the Faces of Incarceration exhibit is a way to really honor and portray those who have been formerly incarcerated with some dignity, and (a way) to invite them into this community of artists.”