New exhibit at Austen Riggs Center showcases work created behind bars by inmates, allowing opportunity for healing

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STOCKBRIDGE, MASS. >> Art is a valuable commodity in prisons, with art collectors who barter with artists for commissions.

And just like the outside world, there are more personal artists who shy away from commercial efforts, maybe getting some respect behind bars, but nowhere near the support of commissioned artists.

That's who art educator Phyllis Kornfeld, who has taught in prisons for 30 years, focuses on in the show she has curated for the Lavender Door Gallery at the Austen Riggs Center. "Art in Marginalized Populations" features a selection of artists that Kornfeld has worked with, including John Harvey, Braulio Diaz and Ronnie White.

The gallery is devoted to showing art work by outsider and under-recognized artists in the Berkshires.

"Phyllis's collection is produced under circumstances that resonate with the mission of our gallery and our teaching studios at the Austen Riggs Center to help people speak through art about their own reality," said gallery director Mark Mulherrin, who will host a presentation by Kornfeld on Tuesday, Aug. 23, from 7-8:30 p.m. at the Austen Riggs Center.

Kornfeld says that she does not teach in the traditional sense, but rather gives the prisoners the materials and leaves them to their work, letting creative energy burst out.

Others might not be so ready and Kornfeld sees her role as the person who strips away doubt so creativity can surface.

"I have done more of what I might call unteaching," she said, "so that I'm disabling any ideas they might have about their own limitations, about what art should look like, what art is, and what is its function. In the end, I'm unleashing the same creative energy that was happening on its own with people like Harvey and Diaz."

This kind of work is mostly produced by prisoners who have never made art until this class, creating their own visual language when they work.

Partly, Kornfeld says, this is because the artists haven't spent a lot of time studying art. Most of the art they have been exposed to is prison art, with genres like biker portraits or tattoo flash.

But what the art class isn't about introducing them to a higher or more pure form of art-making. It's about giving the person the tools to love themselves, with the intention of creating community.

"My purpose is, yes, to enable a person to realize that there's a lot more to themselves than they know, and that there are parts of themselves that want to do good and have the capacity to create beauty," said Kornfeld. "This is a big shock to people and it gives them some conviction that they can continue to activate the good part of themselves, and also that they don't know themselves only by their limitations and their bad history. What I've seen is that spreads out, the impact of one person making art, first of all it spreads to their peers because they see each other creating this work, and the staff and administration of the prison, and then out into the community."

And that will spread to society, which Kornfeld hopes will come to understand incarcerated people as having the same potential for good or evil as any of us. Kornfeld doesn't see prison populations as isolated, but rather part of a larger connected society, and the tools they learn in art instruction will steer how they approach society upon release.

"They're thinking of who they are and what they're capable of and they understand the impact that their actions and their art has on other people, so what kind of impact do they want to have?" she said.

This has lead Kornfeld to expand from the art shows to her next big project — an art center for former prisoners who have returned to their community.

Her idea is for a place that will help provide materials and a place to work, as well as meet other artists and exhibit the work.

Kornfeld has found it is hard for artists to continue working when they are released.

"They become seriously involved and creative, and then when they get out, their lives are so difficult," said Kornfeld, "even those of us who have a lot of advantages, it's pretty rare to be able to take care of yourself on the outside and create art. It's expensive and you need space and time."

She also wants to the artists to have the ability to sell their work, another helpful way to survive on the outside.

"It's not that I want to create professional artists, I don't," said Kornfeld. "I want to give them some direction and structure, because they discovered something that they had no idea about themselves."

On Exhibit ...

What: "Art in Marginalized Populations," curated by Phyllis Kornfeld

Where: Lavender Door Gallery, 37 Main St., Stockbridge, Mass.

Gallery hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday-Friday

Info: www.austenriggs.org


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