How Communities Express Care: Art as a Tool for Tough Conversations
Photo by Janiya Fair
By Hannah Kucharzak
Read Time 5 minutes
August 25, 2023
Beginning this summer and running through November, Illinois Humanities is collaborating with community organizations in six Illinois towns to host free public arts and educational programs for all ages, where participants will collectively envision alternatives to the enduring injustice of mass incarceration. These six events, featuring the artists, educators, and organizers behind Envisioning Justice RE:ACTION, create opportunities for us to reimagine timely conversations about justice, safety, and belonging.
The communities affected most by the carceral system today are united in driving meaningful change—not only in legislature and organizing, but also in building support systems and sparking new understandings among system-impacted families. Amidst struggles in the face of systemic oppression by the prison industrial complex, there are opportunities to engage with arts and humanities and build long-term relationships with others as they share their stories. Illinois Humanities facilitates those connective experiences and amplifies the efforts of deeply-networked community organizations by bolstering the resources that they need to continue making a difference.
Each Envisioning Justice Activation event engages attendees in different mediums of the arts and humanities, seeking to approach important conversations from varied angles. “Each of us learns in unique ways and responds to different modes of expression, so it’s important to be thoughtful and adaptive in how we invite folks into the conversation,” explains Tyreece Williams, program manager of Envisioning Justice. “For example, one person might respond strongly to personal narrative while another is drawn to a visual art piece attempting to articulate similar ideas.”
A community gathers around art in Carbondale
Dozens of attendees came through the doors at ArtSpace 304 in Carbondale on July 26 for Envisioning Justice’s first event in the Activation series, “Art, Poetry, and Conversation with Toni Picasso,” an evening of coming together to reimagine what a supportive environment for the children of incarcerated parents or siblings might look like, and what steps we can take as a society to achieve those goals. The event was hosted by A Gift of Love Charity, a local organization whose mission is to provide arts, education, and agricultural programs.
Antonio L. Burton, also known as “Toni Picasso,” presented a live performance for the audience that infused storytelling with visual art. Playing songs from his 2022 EP, Bars & Gates, he layered paints on a blank canvas in front of him, interspersing spoken commentary and shedding light on how his life has been impacted by the criminal legal system. As the piece progressed, the audience watched the image of a sunset emerge on the canvas while taking in the powerful, resonating message in Toni’s words and music.
Attendees transitioned into the gallery space for group artmaking, energized by the performance and eager to reflect on how their own life experiences can be translated into art. Participants traced their handprints onto paper, writing messages of hope and perseverance, such as “Confiding isn’t weakness,” “Not everyone is against you, trust,” and “You are fabulous, forgiven, and free.” Others came together at different stations in the gallery to talk with each other, as well as write letters and draw pictures. The event closed with a welcoming space for those who wished to courageously share what they created, and how incarceration has impacted their lives.
East St. Louis embraces community care
Community leaders, family, and friends of all ages met for “Empowering Justice Impacted Communities with Joshua Jackson and Coco Davis” in East St Louis. Hosted by Antwoinette Ayers of the I Am East St. Louis, Magazine Foundation, the August 11th event began with Rosalind-Denise Rogers, founder and executive director of the Inner Ear Foundation, playing electric violin—songs ranging from Sam Cooke to Frank Ocean—as guests settled in for an evening of film and discussion.
Award-winning independent documentary producer and cinematographer Joshua Jackson screened an excerpt from his six-part series, “From Prisoner to Professional.” The documentary illuminates the stories of individuals in the process of transitioning home after incarceration; the screening followed the experiences of Nicole “Coco” Davis, a justice-impacted community worker on Chicago’s West Side, as she works to establish transitional housing for other women returning home from prison.
We had the pleasure of welcoming Davis to the event as she joined Jackson for an engaging Q&A, exploring the importance of avoiding stigmatizing language, how safe houses and other resources reduce recidivism, and the need to center the stories of children.
Attend an upcoming event near you
Collaboration from the Inside Out with Renaldo Hudson
September 19, 2023, 5:30 p.m.
45 E University Ave, Illinois Terminal, Floor 4
Champaign, IL 61820
Please join us as we highlight the importance of including perspectives from individuals serving long-term sentences in our pursuit of a more just future.
Artist and organizer Renaldo Hudson will share his experiences as a system-impacted individual and emphasize the need for diverse voices in conversations about creating a world without mass incarceration. This event is presented in partnership with FirstFollowers.
This event is free, and welcomes people of all ages, families, and young people. RSVP is required.
About Envisioning Justice RE:ACTION
Every artist presenting work in the Envisioning Justice Activation event series has contributed work to RE:ACTION, an interactive exhibition and activation kit using the arts and humanities to imagine a future without mass incarceration.
Browse multi-genre projects created by commissioned artists and humanists in Illinois grappling with such issues as recidivism, extralegal torture, wrongful convictions, and reentry. Through dynamic works of visual art, creative writing, music, film, scholarship, and more, the RE:ACTION Exhibition offers unique ways of learning about the complexity of the criminal legal system and our current ways of being that uphold its power to disproportionately harm marginalized individuals and communities in Illinois and beyond.
Check our calendar for upcoming events in Bloomington, Decatur, and Galesburg this fall!