NURFC - From Incarceration Comes Creativity

NURFC - From Incarceration Comes Creativity

When Nicole Fleetwood was growing up in Hamilton, Ohio, her neighborhood experienced hyper incarceration. Fleetwood watched as several of her male cousins, along with many other young men, entered the prison system. Shaken by the devastation mass incarceration caused her family, Fleetwood made a commitment to visit her loved ones regularly.   

“When I would visit my cousins, I was struck by how many prisons had makeshift galleries,” Fleetwood says. “I became very interested in the visual art practices, as well as the broader creative practices, of people in prison.”

While serving as a professor of art history and American studies at Rutgers University, Fleetwood began to study the culture of mass incarceration, focusing on artists who are incarcerated. 

“Creative outlets are so important for people who are incarcerated. They mitigate the suffering and torment of imprisonment,” Fleetwood notes. “Creating art connects incarcerated people with their families and their communities.”

To get an in-depth understanding of the significance of artmaking for people in prison, Fleetwood spent a decade interviewing incarcerated people and their families, as well as several activists and educators whose work promotes prison reform. The interviews and research culminated in a book titled “Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration.” An exhibition under the same name, which serves as a compendium to the book, is on display at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center through Aug. 7.

The “Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration” exhibit’s mission is to acknowledge the dignity, creativity and humanity of people who have been system-impacted.

“Making art in prisons is voluminous,” Fleetwood says. “When people are oppressed or held captive, their creative capabilities kick into drive. Creating art — which includes poetry-writing and dancing — is an expression of freedom and humanity. It’s a big part of the human experience.”

“Marking Time” features work by over 30 artists, including Ohio-based artists Dean Gillispie, Tameca Cole, Larry Cook and Maria Gaspar. Two-thirds of the work was created by system-impacted artists. The remaining one-third was provided by socially engaged artists ranging from photographers, sculptors and video editors to mixed media and textile artists. These artists have never been incarcerated, but their work investigates the impact of prison on everyday life. Fleetwood believes it is critical to have work by incarcerated people, people who were formerly incarcerated, and people who have never been to prison curated in the same exhibition. 

“Historically, artwork focused on the prison experience is placed into silos,” Fleetwood explains. “The artist is either in prison, or the work was created by a well-known artist about prison. It’s rare to see these works of art in conversation with one another. That’s why it’s so important that we share these pieces under the same rubric and aesthetic interrogation.”

With such diverse viewpoints in close proximity to each other, Fleetwood hopes guests will see how prisons have shaped contemporary culture, and how contemporary art is responding to the devastation of mass incarceration.   

Fleetwood would like guests of the Freedom Center to be wowed by the innovation and power of the artwork featured in the “Marking Time” exhibit. More importantly, she hopes they leave with a sense of urgency to better the paths of prisons and criminalization. As a tagline at the Freedom Center says: Art can give a voice. Art can inspire change. 

Want to experience “Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration” for yourself? Check out for ticket information. The exhibition is included with the price of admission.

Related Stories

No stories found.
Venue Cincinnati