Artist Evan Bissell: About What Cannot be Taken Away
What Cannot Be Taken Away: Families and Prisons Project was a collaborative dialogue looking at the impact of incarceration on families that took place from 2009-2010. For 5 months I met weekly with four fathers at San Francisco County Jail #5 in the Resolve to Stop the Violence Project (RSVP) and with four youth who have fathers who are or have been incarcerated and are part of the programs Project WHAT! or Roots (All three programs are run by Community Works West, who made the dialogue structure and project possible). Not related and never coming into contact with each other, the two groups worked on the same exercises and prompts each week, accumulating ideas, furthering their dialogue and building community in the process. The workshops centered around processes of reflection, writing, painting, drawing and recorded conversations that were subsequently played for the other group. During the third month, participants began to design the narrative structures, composition and symbolism present in the pieces. We then continued our dialogue less frequently – through letters and individual meetings, while I worked from their sketches for the following 3 months. The timeline, interactive components and resource library offer bits of context to an endemic social problem that has deeply personal effects.
I came to this project through reflections on being a teacher, not through a personal connection to having a parent or child incarcerated. My interest stemmed from the lack that I was experiencing in schools – the lack of buy-in for students, the lack of compassion and healing as part of learning, and the lack of imagination for dealing with ‘problem’ students. The treatment of students who step ‘outside the bounds’ reminds me of the current mentality of incapacitation that characterizes the US prison system. On this, Ruth Gilmore notes, “Incapacitation doesn’t pretend to change anything about a people except where they are.” Through these mechanisms of separation, our society stokes fear of difference, the unknown, and unseen to create standards of being and living that renders pain invisible except in spectacle. With an understanding that pain rendered invisible so frequently manifests in violence, WCBTA is an attempt to create an alternative communal education, one that is focused on dialogue, sharing and expression with the intention of positive change and healing.
The power of these portraits lies in each person’s honest confrontation of their experience and the freedom that comes from that. I continue to be grateful for their wisdom and love – Ben, Cheyanne, Darren, Joe, Liz, Melvin, Sadie, and Vonteak. Thank you as well to Community Works, Dee Morizono Myers, SOMArts, LEF and Penguin Foundation and the many individual donors. A special thank you to the Rosenberg Library, Health Education Department, Interdisciplinary Studies, Kate Connell, Donna Willmott, Tim Berthold, Lauren Muller, Amber Straus, Nancy Elliot, Graphic Communications Class, and Lauren Porter for affirming the importance of this process.
-Evan Bissell, 2012