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July 04, 2024

New Barnes Foundation exhibit showcases works created by incarcerated artists in state prison

'Visions,' opens July 5 and is a collaboration by the museum and Mural Arts. Some of the art on display was made by men at SCI Phoenix in Montgomery County.

Arts & Culture Museums
Barnes Foundation exhibit William Perthes/Barnes Foundation

The Barnes Foundation new exhibit 'Visions' will display works by formerly and currently incarcerated artists from July 5 through Aug. 26. 'Wilde-Flower,' a monotype by Isaiah Wharton, is one of 22 pieces that will be shown at the museum.

Visitors looping through the wings of Degas and Renoir paintings at the Barnes Foundation will soon stumble upon a much more contemporary collection. The 22-piece exhibit features work from artists impacted by the justice system, including men at the maximum security state prison in Montgomery County.

"Visions," which will be on view Friday through Aug. 26, is a collaboration between the Barnes and Mural Arts. Since 2008, the latter has offered paid apprenticeships to those 18 and older returning from prison and youth impacted by the justice system in other ways. Artists in that program, called The Guild, will be featured in "Visions," but so will men from SCI Phoenix in Collegeville. It's the latest in a string of shows to come out of the restorative justice initiative started in 2018 by Mural Arts and the museum on the Ben Franklin Parkway.

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"We work together to come up with a theme," William Perthes, the curator of the exhibit, explained. "And 'Visions,' we all felt really fit that bill. It suggests both memories we carry with us from the past, maybe a family or friends or events we've experienced. But also visions are things that we hope for, that we dream for, that we've yet been able to obtain."

The pieces in "Visions" were made in an array of artistic techniques, everything from acrylic paintings to mixed media collages. "Dear Dad," by Keith Andrews, depicts a man tossing a paper airplane bound for Dallas into the Philadelphia skyline. Al Collantes' "Incan Princess" shows a woman standing stoically, as if for a royal portrait, in front of an Incan symbol for the sun, which frames her head like a halo. Perhaps the most haunting work is "Mercy Needed." In the mixed media piece, Thomas Schilk weaves faceless figures in white string, so they resemble buried mummies, and frames them all in black bars. Along the outer edges of canvas, several men's names are buried in overlapping red text. Similarly jumbled words in the center read, "THESE MEN AND MANY MORE NEEDED MERCY NOW I NEED SOME MERCY TOO."

Barnes VisionsKristin Hunt/for PhillyVoice

'Mercy Needed' by Thomas Schilk show faceless figures wrapped white string, so they resemble buried mummies, and frames them all in black bars.

The exhibit is set up in the middle of one of the two looping hallways that constitute the Barnes Foundation's core galleries. Anyone wandering through this space will happen upon "Visions," and that was very much by design.

"It's a kind of, and I mean this in the most positive way, a renegade experience, as far as I'm concerned," Perthes said. "Because most visitors have not come to see this exhibition. But because of its location, they're exposed to it."

As part of the initiative, participating artists attend workshops at the print studio of Second State Press in Olde Kensington and art education classes at the Barnes. Perthes, who has been working with incarcerated artists since his graduate studies at Villanova University two decades ago, leads some of those classes. Though they cover major works by Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin and El Greco, they encourage the artists to look beyond the masters for inspiration.

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"If you're familiar with our space, it's unique in lots of ways," Perthes said. "It has the ability to engage people on all different levels. Although many of the Guild are interested in visual arts, maybe they come from a background of carpentry or mechanics, or something like that. They can see aspects of that in the collection. They can see furniture, they can see metal work, intricate locks, for instance. So it's inviting in lots of different ways. It's not just, here are great works of art that you know nothing about, and I'm here to tell you what you're supposed to think about it."

Perthes believes artistic expression helps instill a sense of pride in the men at SCI Phoenix. The facility includes a dedicated studio space, where the artists can leave out their works-in-progress. This visibility gives them a "distinction," Perthes said. Fellow inmates might approach them for greeting cards or portraits of family members. The artists also work on panels for Mural Arts, which are later installed around Philadelphia, in neighborhoods where their families and friends might see them.

Through the exhibits at the Barnes, their work also has the potential to impact strangers with set ideas about mass incarceration and the people who go to prison. Perthes hopes to take one of the previous exhibitions, "Faces of Resilience," on the road next year to venues outside Philadelphia to reach an even wider audience.

"The hope is that they recognize the artists' humanity," he said. "That's sort of the ultimate goal, that they see people who have been involved in the criminal justice system, in one way or the other, as people. People with an incredible level of creativity."

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