Dean Gillispie’s 'Spiz’s Dinette' (1998)
Photograph courtesy of Dean Gillispie / MoMA PS1

The Breathtaking Ingenuity of Incarcerated Artists

How tea bags, cigarette foil, bedsheets, and more can turn into a masterpiece

Image above: Dean Gillispie’s Spiz’s Dinette, 1998

This article was published online on February 7, 2021. Updated at 2:33 p.m. ET on February 18, 2021.

Spiz’s Dinette, a toaster-size trailer with a propane tank no bigger than your thumb, was painstakingly crafted during Dean Gillispie’s years of incarceration at an Ohio prison. Gillispie constructed the silver trailer by spreading cigarette-pack foil across notebook cardboard, and used pins taken from the prison sewing shop to hold the whole structure together. The window curtains, made from used tea bags, are partially closed. A tiny sign on the trailer door reads, in nearly microscopic inky script: gone fishing. The whole sculpture invites you to lean closer, to peer through the tea-bag curtains and squint at the sign—only to encounter a message that is a declaration of absence, an ironic claiming of the very leisure time that prison makes impossible. Written from the claustrophobic quarters of a prison cell, the note turns a cliché of leisure into an act of fugitive self-possession.

During two decades of incarceration for crimes he did not commit, Gillispie—raised in rural Ohio by working-class parents who went into tremendous debt to fund the fight for his release—built an entire series of miniature establishments that collectively evoke a sense of small-town nostalgia, including a movie theater (whose marquee advertises I Walked With a Zombie) and a series of shops bearing his childhood nickname: Spiz’s Burger Shack, Spiz’s Scoop City. Many feature the street address 276: Gillispie’s cellblock number. These miniatures represent a nearly sublime form of the art of “mushfake,” prison slang for replicas of outside objects constructed from materials available inside. The bricks of the movie theater were sculpted out of dental compound taken from the prison medical unit. Spiz’s Diner, made from soda cans and cassette-tape cases, was rigged with electricity by a fellow cellblock resident.

Gillispie’s miniatures are daydreams made tangible, salvaging sleek chrome sidings from the austerity of a cigarette economy, and hours of creative labor from the long decades of a prison sentence. With their limited materials, Gillispie’s pieces testify to some of the many freedoms their maker was denied. But their ingenuity testifies to freedoms that can never be fully taken: to imagine, to create, to reconstitute, to survive by way of unexpected beauties. As Gillispie has put it, summing up his relationship with prison authorities: “They were procuring my life and I was procuring product from them.”

When art emerges out of conditions shaped by injustice, inequality, and brutality, we—and by “we,” I specifically mean people viewing the art who are not subject to the conditions under which it was produced—may reflexively expect it to be a transparent vessel delivering the terrible news of its own origins. From that angle, we risk seeing its creators as ethnographers, duty-bound to deliver the particulars of their dehumanization. But not all art that emerges from injustice wants to transcribe it; art can glance obliquely, using stolen sewing pins and tea-bag curtains to suggest longing and determination—to say, You can’t have all of me.

Installation view, 'Untitled' (n.d.) by Ojore Lutalo, 2020
Installation view of Untitled (n.d.) by Ojore Lutalo, 2020 (Photograph by Matthew Septimus / MoMA PS1)

Gillispie’s miniatures are part of an exhibition at MoMA PS1 through early April called “Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration,” guest-curated by Nicole R. Fleetwood, a professor at Rutgers and an activist who has written a book by the same name. The exhibition presents an archive of art that responds to the painful conditions of its own making in a breathtaking variety of ways—not just with explicit depiction or acts of figurative witnessing, but also with abstraction and experiment, with miniature daydreams and monumental collages; not just with visions of suffering, but also with glimpses of camaraderie, intimacy, and vitality.

Some pieces cry out with unapologetic directness against the injustice that pervades the penal system. The collages made by Ojore Lutalo, a self-described political prisoner affiliated with the Black Liberation Army who spent 22 years in solitary confinement (where he had access to photocopied documents that he used as he worked on his art and his legal appeals), are manifestos that indict the brutal cruelty of extended isolation. The video installation by the Philadelphia-based rapper Isis Tha Saviour (Mary Enoch Elizabeth Baxter) restages her experience of giving birth in prison, shackled to a gurney; in her lyrics she connects that viscerally wrenching experience to the longer history of African American bondage (“The prison system just another version of the plantation”).

Other works address in more slanted ways the systemic and enduring toll of mass incarceration. Jesse Krimes’s massive wall installation, Apokaluptein:16389067, composed of 39 “procured” prison bedsheets, depicts an elaborate dystopian cosmos. Many of Jared Owens’s abstract-expressionist paintings utilize paint mixed with soil taken from the prison recreation yard, granting them an insistent roughness, a textural topography that refuses to stay confined to the flat plane of the canvas. Owens’s choice to work in abstract expressionism—an artistic tradition long associated with elite institutions and highbrow culture—asks his audience to respect his identity as an autonomous creative agent, rather than simply an emissary of institutional horror.

'Process,' James “Yaya” Hough, 2009
Process, by James “Yaya” Hough, 2009 (Photograph by Kris Graves / MoMA PS1)

A particular set of constraints confronts incarcerated artists in their work: very little space, very few materials, but almost endless time. To put it more precisely, they are navigating endless penal time, scheduled by others, while mourning the loss of domestic time—family time, home time, free time. Many of the pieces in “Marking Time” are reckoning with that simultaneous grief and abundance, and they all mark time in one essential way: by transforming penal time into art. Gillispie’s sculptures and Krimes’s wall mural—in their miniature intricacy and massive scale, respectively—offer physical testimony to all the hours that went into making them. James “Yaya” Hough’s drawings are scrawled across prison menus, Tuesday’s potpie and Wednesday’s stuffed-cabbage casserole, an imagined mythology running roughshod across the discrete time-blocks of coercive institutional life. For Owens, who spent much of his 13-year sentence in New Jersey helping run art programs for fellow prisoners, the techniques of abstract expressionism offered a tool to help him manage his relationship to time. “To fixate on the past or to focus on the time remaining on his sentence was to succumb to rage and depression,” Fleetwood recounts him explaining in an interview. “Such thoughts would make him angry about the years spent away from his two sons, both very young when he went away.” Abstraction helped him hone a “practice of staying in the present.”

His decision to mix rec-yard soil into his paint, he noted, not only inscribed the prison in his art but expanded his otherwise limited array of color options. Even the size of his prison paintings gestures toward a submerged story of scarce materials. As Owens recounted to Fleetwood, at first he was able to work only on the small canvases the prison made available to him. But one day he spotted a discarded wooden pallet that he realized he could use to stretch larger canvases, and decided to brave a heavily monitored hallway to obtain it, risking punishment. Owens, who took jars of prison soil with him when he was released, was on parole when he produced his 2014 painting, Oculus. The work is anchored by swirls of dark paint swooping and curling over choppier strokes of dull olive green, its upper corner buoyed by arcs of periwinkle blue—the suggestion of a distant sky, obscured but not blocked entirely. All of these tones are staged against a bleeding, pulsing core of orange. “Anyone who has been incarcerated would know that [orange is] a stress color,” Owens told Fleetwood.

Jared Owens’s 'Oculus' (2014)
Jared Owens’s Oculus, 2014 (Photograph by Kris Graves / MoMA PS1)

As I stood in front of Owens’s abstract canvases, I could feel myself reaching for the explanatory symbolism of their colors: the traces of inmate jumpsuits in the blaring orange, the ghosts of cell bars and correctional officers’ uniforms conjured by curves of black and navy blue. But the ways in which Owens’s abstract paintings veered away from representation were just as important as their symbolism. Fleetwood describes the “fugitive planning” involved in nonfigurative art that renders “one’s self out of sight,” and Owens’s canvases helped me understand what that might entail: art that pushes back against the brutality of constant surveillance by resisting the accessibility of direct portrayal. Owens’s paintings forced me to acknowledge my own hunger for representational directness—how much I wanted depictions of the conditions they’d arisen from. Perhaps, more than anything, I wanted fodder for my own righteous indignation.

Though art is often credited with providing speculative transport across vast gulfs in experience, “Marking Time” challenges that premise by implicitly asking, What are the limits of what can be made visible? Again and again, its art forces a viewer to reckon with those limits. Owens’s painting confounded any stable emblematic meanings. Gillispie’s miniatures presented me with spaces that were too small to enter. However closely I peered, the actual experience of confinement that had catalyzed their construction eluded me—the abiding pain lurking behind their eerie daydreams.

Fantasy and documentary might seem like opposite modes: Fantasy conjures the impossible, while documentary transcribes what already exists. Yet so much of the art created within prison walls attests to their entwinement. Fantasies document psychic rather than physical landscapes; they expose the inside of a mind, rather than the inside of a cell. Just a room away from Gillispie’s miniatures, an entire gallery wall is covered by Jesse Krimes’s 15-by-40-foot Apokaluptein: 16389067. Arranged as a three-layer tableau of heaven, earth, and hell, this dreamscape stages the fascinating collision of two realms: the claustrophobic materials of prison, and the expansive imagining of everything beyond it—the external world in all its chaotic abundance.

Krimes—a native of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, with a working-class background, sentenced to five years in federal prison right after getting a bachelor’s degree in art—constructed each layer of Apokaluptein:16389067 from 39 bedsheets, elaborately collaged with images transferred from The New York Times using hair gel and a spoon. He made each panel individually, using prison sheets (made by prison labor through a government program called Unicor) and bartering bespoke tattoo designs for money to purchase the hair gel; then he smuggled the sheets out of prison by sending them home in individual packages with the help of fellow inmates who worked in the mail room.

Apokaluptein:16389067, by Jesse Krimes, 2010–13
Apokaluptein:16389067, by Jesse Krimes, 2010–13 (Photograph courtesy of Jesse Krimes / Harvard University Press)

At first glance, all I could see in Apokaluptein:16389067 was an elaborate fantasy of the outside world—a surreal cosmos structured by longing for the inaccessible. The lowest row of bedsheets (“hell”) is a frantic collage of media images, like a simmering stew of capitalism and commodification: advertisements for Christie’s and Prada crowded around a sketch of a giant human eye, ambiguously demonic or holy, taking it all in or else trying to destroy it with a glare. The middle row (“earth”) is full of towering women cut from J.Crew ads, who step like giants over a series of alternately pastoral and nightmarish landscapes, including a battered roller coaster looming out of flooded seawater from Hurricane Sandy and a crowd of protesters at Tahrir Square during the Arab Spring. The juxtaposition of towering fashion models and the scenes of turmoil at their high-heeled feet reflects with wry absurdity—as if through a fun-house mirror—the gap between the fantasies and realities of late capitalism. The upper row (“heaven”) is an open blue sky full of washed-out clouds, perhaps the most audacious fantasy of all. Each layer of Krimes’s cosmos is also covered with flying figures, muscular ballerina bodies hand-drawn with colored pencils. When I leaned close to get a better look, I saw that many of them were headless. I’d expected legible humanity, but instead I found faceless, disquieting anonymity.

The longer I stood in front of Apokaluptein:16389067, the more its meanings multiplied and undermined one another. Its staggering scale and teeming collages, crowned by open sky, all reach toward the external world, but its dark cityscapes and looming giantesses offer a withering critique of market-driven excess in all its blithe ruthlessness—from the frenzy of advertisements in the lower reaches of hell to the models obliviously stepping across tableaus of wreckage. The mural loathes the culture of worship it evokes. Its flying figures are both impossible ideals and unnerving grotesques. At once elusive and immersive, it refuses to yield the satisfaction of an easy allegory even as it swallows you whole. The work’s title combines the Greek origin of the word apocalypse (meaning “to uncover, reveal”) with Krimes’s prisoner number (16389067), which slyly suggests that we might be in the business not just of producing an apocalypse but of mass-producing apocalypses, each with its own serial number.

Krimes’s mystical cosmology rejects the cramped scale of prison—the single sheet, the single cell—and his methods, like Gillispie’s, insist on transformation rather than documentation. Neither Krimes’s collages nor Gillispie’s mushfakes are devoted to the art of reproduction; both are strategies of alchemy and displacement instead—letting inside materials replicate the outside, and outside materials saturate the inside. Fleetwood recounts that Krimes actually “struggled to make art after he was released from prison because the restrictive parameters of making art inside had fueled his creativity.”

For so many of the artists in “Marking Time,” these feats of transformation were made possible through collaboration—like Gillispie’s cellmate rigging the electricity for his tiny diner, and Krimes’s friends in the mail room sending out his bedsheets. During Krimes’s years at FCI Fairton, the same federal prison in New Jersey where Owens was incarcerated, he and Owens—along with another artist named Gilberto Rivera, who made collages from commissary wrappers and inmate jumpsuits—created the Fairton Collective. The trio gathered in a small art studio to pool their supplies and their subscriptions to Artforum and Art in America, and to read and discuss theorists like Michel Foucault. Owens was also vested with the authority to allocate use of the studio by others in the prison: The collective’s existence—its control over that studio and what happened there—was an act of reclaiming physical space, just as all of these artworks manifest a reclamation of governed time. The three men were claiming friendship, too, as a creative material, in the same way cigarette foil and prison menus and soil became materials—all resources salvaged from conditions of scarcity.

'An Institutional Nightmare,' by Gilberto Rivera, 2012
An Institutional Nightmare, by Gilberto Rivera, 2012 (Photograph by Kris Graves / MoMA PS1)

As I grew more and more enthralled by Krimes’s mail-room-smuggled Divine Comedy and Gillispie’s meticulous craftsmanship, I also started to become suspicious of my awe, worried that it might offer false solace or unwittingly fuel the delusion that the brilliance of the art could somehow redeem, or even ameliorate, the circumstances of its making. But part of the achievement of the work in “Marking Time” is the way it subtly, forcefully undermines the very awe it produces, constantly reminding us of the prison soil in the paint. By summoning wonder but refusing its consolations, it forces visitors to dwell in an honest discomfort. Even as this art testifies to the stirring possibilities of generative constraint, it never lets us forget that it wants to abolish the conditions that made its creation an act of survival.

Nowhere did this experience of troubled awe feel more moving than in the small room that opens the exhibition—and that is also, as a visitor finishes the loop of galleries, where it ends. All four of its walls are covered with rows of pencil-sketched portraits, each one showing the face of an incarcerated man: one with a goatee and a wry smile; another wearing a pair of headphones, his expression focused and withdrawn; yet another with an eye patch and the faint outlines of a stick-and-poke cross on his shoulder. Since 2014, an incarcerated artist named Mark Loughney has been creating these portraits in 20-minute sessions with fellow inmates at SCI Dallas, a Pennsylvania state prison. Together they constitute a series called Pyrrhic Defeat: A Visual Study of Mass Incarceration, now consisting of more than 500 portraits. “The irony is that 500 faces is not even a drop in the bucket of our 2.4 million brothers, mothers, sisters, and fathers that are locked away in prisons in our country,” Loughney has written.

Loughney’s faces are all drawn on 9-by-12-inch sheets of whatever inexpensive paper he can acquire inside, sketched in three-quarter view, their eyes gazing away from us. An elderly man with dreadlocks and a beard—his tufts of white hair drawn in pale charcoal, his creased eyes suggesting his weariness—conveys an expression at once dynamic and inscrutable, a mixture of patience, knowingness, and disappointment. A younger man with cornrows and wire-frame glasses looks stone-faced and determined, his rigid expression so precisely arranged that it seems to betray a rawness lurking beneath. Each rectangle holds not just a face but the record of an encounter between two men joined by the act of portrait making, a pocket of stillness and concentration carved from an otherwise chaotic environment. “I saw a guy here with a skeletal middle finger tattoo that engulfed his entire face,” Loughney recounted to the journalist Maurice Chammah. “I said, ‘Dude, I gotta draw you.’ I asked him his name and he said, ‘Face.’ ” While making a portrait of Phil Africa, a legendary Philadelphia activist, Loughney recalled that “a fly buzzed around them, occasionally landing on Africa’s face,” Chammah wrote. “ ‘You could swat that fly if you want,’ Loughney said. ‘No, he’s alright,’ Africa responded. ‘He’s our brother, too.’ Africa died soon after.”

Installation view, 'Pyrrhic Defeat,' Mark Loughney, 2014–present
Installation view of Pyrrhic Defeat: A Visual Study of Mass Incarceration, by Mark Loughney, 2014–present (Photograph by Matthew Septimus / MoMA PS1)

Loughney’s portraits function as a kind of ethical antivenom, reclaiming the faces of incarcerated men from all the genres that ask us to see them as perpetrators: the wanted poster, the mug shot, the courtroom sketch. His portraits instead situate these faces inside a genre long associated with nobility and privilege, available to members of society who could afford to commission depictions of themselves, and who could control the terms by which they were seen. Loughney’s work also suggests—as the most searing portraits do—that we can glimpse the hidden infinitude of someone’s consciousness through the finite, tangible features of his face. In a cramped room that feels like a cross between a prison cell and a shrine, Loughney’s drawings ask us to see the human faces behind the rhetoric that justifies mass incarceration, and to confront a carceral state that has been rendered invisible not so much by disappearance as by naturalization. As the activist Angela Davis has put it: “The prison has become a key ingredient of our common sense. It is there, all around us.”

Hidden in plain sight, the stain of mass incarceration implicates the museum audience, too: It’s supported by our tax dollars, and conducted under the banner of protecting our freedom. Loughney’s portraits ask those of us who wander freely through these museum galleries to reckon with the stark truth that each imprisoned person is endless in his humanity—tender and flawed, bitter and hopeful, loving and beloved. One man in a beanie looks curious, or maybe wistful, or else nostalgic; another with a short-cropped beard looks amused by something we can’t see; another with a pursed mouth looks … who knows? His sunglasses make his expression inscrutable, which feels less like obstruction and more like the point: He is determining how much of him we get to see.

The averted gazes of Loughney’s subjects, along with their simultaneously suggestive and opaque expressions, insist that we recognize their humanity and their privacy at once. That push-and-pull sense of invitation and refusal echoes the tensions embedded in other works: the evocative ambiguities of Owens’s abstract canvases, the allegorical ambiguities of Krimes’s surreal cosmos, the bait and switch of Gillispie’s gone fishing. And in their elusive gazes, Loughney’s portraits reminded me of a series of photographs a few rooms away by an artist who was inspired by his incarcerated uncles. In Larry Cook’s The Visiting Room, all of his subjects are pointedly turned away from his camera. Confronted with the backs of their heads, I kept moving and fidgeting, trying to get a better view of faces that were physically impossible to see. Making someone’s face visible can force you to recognize his humanity, but refusing access to his face—especially in the context of prison’s unmitigated surveillance—can force you to recognize his humanity as well, by insisting that you acknowledge how much of him you’ll never see or know.

'The Visiting Room #4,' Larry Cook, 2019

The Visiting Room #4, by Larry Cook, 2019. Larry Cook is a professional photographer, not an incarcerated artist. (Photograph courtesy of Larry Cook / MoMA PS1)

One wall of Loughney’s portraits is entirely composed of men wearing masks, that instant visual touchstone of the coronavirus pandemic. A man in a sleeveless undershirt has a massive eagle tattoo across his chest, his mask creased into slight shadows by his breathing. The eyes of a bald man beside him seem rueful or yearning behind his glasses, and the tied loops of his mask dangle behind his ears. In a formal sense, these masked portraits are forced to do so much with limited access—to work with just the subjects’ eyes; to summon, from their gazes alone, a sense of the singular texture of each individual consciousness. The masks on these men are a jarring reminder of simultaneity. They are living through the same pandemic as every museum visitor, but they are living through it in a very different way—their bodies more imperiled, deemed less worthy of protection.

Among all these faces, only one stares at us directly. This man’s face is sketched in blue pencil amid rows of faces penciled in plain graphite gray. He is unmasked amid the masks. His eyes are not gazing off into the distance. After a moment of staring at this man’s portrait—or rather, meeting his gaze—I realized that it is a self-portrait: the artist’s name, Loughney, is faintly visible on the name tag sewn onto his uniform. His eyes stopped me. His gaze didn’t invite me into the frame so much as it said: You’re already here.

Due to an error in exhibition materials for “Marking Time,” this article originally said that Ojore Lutalo had access to a photocopier while in solitary confinement. In fact, Lutalo had access to photocopied documents.

This article appears in the March 2021 print edition with the headline “Creativity in Confinement.”