A woman stares out expressionlessly, her orange attire contrasting with the sky-blue background. Below her portrait, an open letter to Angela Davis by the subject, Kennetta Andrews, is printed on the piece with red bold font stamps. Mary DeWitt’s 2014 oil and graphite on mylar, “Kennetta Andrews” is one of the many portraits currently on display in “Release: Portraits of Women Serving Life” in Gelb Gallery.
“Release: Portraits of Women Serving Life” contains several portraits of incarcerated women sentenced to life without parole in Pennsylvania, with the exception of LJ Kittle and Kennetta Andrews, who were staff at the State Correctional Institution at Muncy. The exhibition aims to bring visibility to the invisible female inmates, addressing today’s crisis of mass incarceration, the prison-industrial complex and the new Jim Crow.
“For decades, [these women] have been warehoused and they lost contact with their families and their families are each other. There is not much thought about them because they are hidden. It is just this devastating unconscious aspect of our culture. It needs to be completely changed,” said DeWitt.
In 1988, DeWitt started teaching painting in prisons. In 1990, she became the director of the Prison Society Arts and Humanities program. DeWitt was able to talk with the staff and the administrators at the State Correctional Institute at Muncy, a maximum security prison, and she asked if they could select a group of women who could work with [DeWitt]. She aimed to share the stories of these women, giving them some visibility through her artwork.
“I was always in the [principal’s] office as a little girl and my mother would come back from teacher’s conferences and cry and I was always in trouble,” said DeWitt. “I just felt really identified with their situation and also felt like what a great way to use portraiture to bring visibility to people who have no voice and are totally invisible and in a system that is just draconian. Every one of these people and all the people I have met in prison are good people who had horrible childhoods and made a mistake and now are in prison for thirty, forty years,” she added.
DeWitt’s favorite portrait is of LJ Kittle. In the portrait, Kittle’s face is pained with crinkled eyes and a frowning scrowl. Her eyes are unfocused and looking up, as if she is not present in the moment.
“First of all, it’s so her. It’s so Kittle. When I see that, I just think of her… She is a dear, dear friend. When she’s here, I see her all the time. When she’s in my life, she’s outside. And at the time, she was going through this crisis, she was going through a really rough time and I was so worried about her when I painted it. So I guess there’s an intensity to it that I really like,” said DeWitt.
In addition to using her artwork to bring exposure to her subjects, DeWitt also records their stories, matches them with stills from her painting process, and uploads them on YouTube.
“I think what I did by recording my process and playing the recordings back to them and painting the portraits, they were being mirrored. They were no longer this invisible identity. I can’t even tell you how many times they’ve said, ‘I’m not bad, I sound like a reasonable person.’ They have no concept of themselves because there was no mirroring,” said DeWitt.
The prison system has changed dramatically since DeWitt started the project in 1988, creating great obstacles for her. In 1988, she was able to go in the prisons with a name tag and paint the subjects in real life. Starting from 1995, DeWitt was not able to go into the prisons anymore. She couldn’t even record their stories and had to paint the subjects referring to photographs.
DeWitt said, “For years, I did this illegally. [The administrators] would call me on the phone and I would record it and put it on YouTube. My husband was like, ‘Oh my god. What if they come and put you in prison?’ They just wouldn’t let me bring visibility to [the inmates]. The life-sentenced women are given a number and a uniform. Now they let me come to the corrections because there has been a lot of change with all the writings, with ‘The New Jim Crow’ book by Michelle Alexander, all this new visibility. They are now letting me come in and work with the prisoners.”
“Release: Portraits of Women Serving Life” went on display on April 13, and the exhibit ends on May 15.