The paintings that hide and decorate the lives of the incarcerated
Some of the most fascinating, unsettling examples of landscape painting in the contemporary United States are to be found in its prison visiting rooms, where they function as painted backdrops for family photographs.
Ranging in subject matter from picturesque waterfalls to urban streetscapes, and from ski resorts to medieval castles, these large-format paintings serve a dual purpose: for the authorities, they help to restrict photography of sensitive prison facilities; for the prisoners and their families, they are an escapist fiction, constructing an alternate reality for display on fridge doors and mantlepieces.
With nearly 2.3 million Americans in prison today -- an astonishing one out of every hundred adults in the United States, according to a 2008 Pew study -- this school of landscape art is critically overlooked but has a mass-market penetration comparable to the work of Thomas Kinkade. And, like Kinkade's work, these backdrops, which are usually painted by talented, self-taught inmates, are simultaneously photo-realistic and highly idealized. Cumulatively, they represent a catalog of imagined utopias -- scenes from an abstracted, perfected elsewhere, painted from behind bars.
A few years ago, artist Alyse Emdur was looking through a family album when she came across a photo of herself as a little girl, posed in front of a tropical beach scene while visiting her older brother in prison. She spent the next few years exploring this overlooked school of landscape art, tracking down examples across the United States.
At first, she wrote to prison administrators to ask permission to photograph the backdrops herself -- a request that was inevitably firmly denied. Instead, she joined prisoner pen-pal sites, and asked inmates to send her pictures of themselves posed in front of their prison's backdrops, eventually assembling several hundred photos and more than sixteen binders full of correspondence. Finally, in summer 2011, she gained permission to visit and photograph several prison visiting room backdrops herself.
Venue visited Emdur's studio in downtown Los Angeles in June 2012, as she was collecting all this material for a book, Prison Landscapes, published this month by Four Corners Books. After a studio tour conducted by her partner, artist Michael Parker, we followed up with Emdur by phone: the edited transcript of our conversation appears below.
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Nicola Twilley: From the hundreds of photographs that prisoners sent you, as well as the ten or so backdrops that you were able to photograph yourself, it seems as though there is almost a set list of subject matter: glittering cityscapes, scenes of natural landscapes, like beaches and sunsets, and then historical or fantasy architecture, such as medieval castles. Did you notice any patterns or geographic specificity to these variations in subject matter?
Alyse Emdur: You do see some regional realism -- so, prisons in Washington State will have evergreen trees in their backdrops, prisons in Florida will have white sand beaches, and prisons in Louisiana will have New Orleans French Quarter-style features. There's also the question of where the prisoners are from: one thing that I've observed is that in upstate New York, for example, many of the prisoners are actually from New York City, so many of the backdrops in upstate New York prisons show New York City skylines.
Fantastical scenes are actually much less common -- from what I gather from my correspondence, realism is like gold in prison. That's the form of artistic expression that's most appreciated and most respected, so that's often the goal for the backdrop painter.
Do you have a sense of how you get to be a backdrop painter -- do inmates chose amongst themselves or do the prison authorities just make a selection? And, on a similar note, how much artistic freedom does the backdrop painter actually have, in terms of needing approval of his or her subject matter from fellow inmates or the authorities?
That's one of the questions that I've asked of all the backdrop painters who I've been in touch with over the years. The answer is always that if you are a "good artist" in prison, then you're very well-respected within the prison -- people in the prison all know you. You'll be making greeting cards for people or you'll be doing hand calligraphy for love letters for friends in prison -- you'll be known for your skills. The prison administration is already aware of the respected artists, because they shine within the culture, and so they are usually the ones that are chosen. And when you're chosen, it's a huge honor.
Something to keep in mind, though, is that backdrops do get painted over. In some prisons, the backdrop can change a few times a year.
One of the artists I've kept in touch with is Darrell Van Mastrigt -- I interviewed him for the book, and he painted a backdrop for me that was in my thesis show. In the prison that he's in, the portrait studios are organized by the NAACP. He said that the NAACP had seen his paintings in the past, and when they selected him, they gave him creative control over what sort of landscape he chose to paint.
Obviously, there are some rules. The main restriction is that you can't use certain colors that are affiliated with gangs. So, for instance, Darrell painted a mural with two cars and they had to be green and purple -- they couldn't be red or blue. But, from what Darrell has told me and from what I understand from other painters, they don't get much input from other prisoners. At the same time, they're very conscious of wanting to please people and maintain their status within the prison, of course, and they get a lot of pleasure out of doing something positive for families in the visiting room.
Another interesting thing a painter told me was that she was very conscious of not wanting to do a specific, recognizable cityscape, because she knew that not everyone in the prison was from the city. So she deliberately tried to paint a more abstract landscape that she thought anyone could relate to. And a lot of imagery they work from is from books in the prison library, rather than just their memories.
In some of the photographs you were sent, the prisoners are in front of off-the-shelf printed backdrops -- some offering multiple pull-down choices--rather than hand-painted ones. Are these standardized commercial backdrops gradually replacing the inmate-produced landscapes?
The backdrop-painting tradition is definitely still vibrant and strong, but my sense is that these store-bought backdrops are becoming more and more common.