Art on the Inside, a collection of work from the Alabama Prison Arts + Education Project, represented the creation of art in spite of limitations behind bars.
The exhibit, located at the Southside Center for the Arts in Opelika, was hosted by East Alabama Arts and Cottonseed Studios as part of the Concourse/south festival.
Doors to the exhibit opened at 6 p.m. where guests were free to observe the works and stay for a talk detailing the project.
Many of the works were self-portraits the inmates and students of the project had completed.
"You have to make space for people to make art," said Kyes Stevens, founder of Alabama Prison Arts + Education. "How do you learn if you do not have access to something?"
Stevens graduated with a degree in English from Auburn before moving on to earn her master's in women's history. She then obtained a master of fine arts in poetry at Sarah Lawrence College in New York.
After that, she began teaching poetry at Talladega federal prison, and the program grew from there.
Sign up for our newsletter
Get The Plainsman straight to your inbox.
Founded in 2003, there have been 243 classes taught and 3,650 participating students so far. Serving 10 out of the 15 prisons in Alabama, it is the only program of its kind in the state.
"Our program, fundamentally, is about making spaces inside of prisons for people to make art," Stevens said.
Guests could be seen admiring the art work on either side of the hallway while also mingling with other interested observers.
Long Pine Catering, Premium Beverage and Ampersand Wine supplied food and drinks enjoyed by the guests.
Professor and Director of the Women's Studies program Arianne Gaetano came along with her husband to support the arts and to listen to Stevens' lecture.
"I've known of Kyes' work with the prison project, but I never heard her talk about it, so I came to learn more about," Gaetano said.
Assistant professor in art history, Emily Burns, also came in support.
"I wanted to see the work in the exhibition," Burns said. "I've been familiar with the work for a long time with the Alabama Prison Arts + Education Project, and a couple of colleagues in my department have long been teaching in the project as well. I'm just really excited to see some of the works the students have put forth."
During her lecture, Stevens discussed the importance of the arts inside of prisons.
"For the students in prison, teaching them was completely unlike my experience in undergraduate teaching, it was a completely different enthusiasm to learn," Stevens said. "As someone who loves to teach that is very exciting."
Stevens said she not only found people who wanted to learn but also discovered that she had a privileged life. A lot of the inmates had never had access to education in ways that she had.
It was about making access and space, she said.
"What the program does and what our amazing teachers do is creating an environment to learn and create just for the sake of learning and creating," Stevens said.
Stevens explained that the art classes are 14-weeks long, and during one of the sessions she came across one of the most significant pieces in the program.
Stevens held up a self-portrait created by one of the students.
"This guy came to class and said I would like to learn how to draw," Stevens said. "The self-portrait section of the class is kind of amazing and heartbreaking."
Stevens explained they were able to bring a camera into the prison for the exercise. Some of the prisoners became overwhelmed with emotion because they had not seen themselves in years.
Through the 14-week class, the man learned how to draw himself impressively well.
"If this man had an opportunity to invest in art when he was younger, he would be teaching art classes," Stevens said. "So we are doing a disservice to our community when we do not make spaces for people to engage with art."
Those who wish to visit the exhibit are welcome as it is not just available during the week of the festival but also throughout the coming months.
Do you like this story? The Plainsman doesn't accept money from tuition or student fees, and we don't charge a subscription fee. But you can donate to support The Plainsman.Support The Plainsman