Celebrating Higher Education Behind Bars: A reflection of the recent art exhibit in Warner Memorial Library

By: Ellie Greer

Eastern’s Prison Education Program (PEP) held a series of events these past few weeks that highlighted the powerful artwork of our students behind bars. PEP seeks to provide a transformative education for those incarcerated, giving them better opportunities and a solid foundation of faith, reason, and justice to succeed upon reentry into society.

“Celebrating Higher Education Behind Bars” is a multimedia art installation organized by PEP featuring original artwork and poetry by incarcerated students who were enrolled in a PEP course on creativity and artistic expression last summer at SCI-Chester in Chester, PA. This course, co-taught by Eastern University professor Stephen Welsh and Philadelphia-based photographer Tieshka Smith, established space for PEP students to create powerful visual art and poetry that connects them to the universal human need for self-expression.

The exhibit offers the public a unique opportunity to reflect on the ways in which this body of art provides a window into the realities of incarceration and the ways in which students have explored themes of love, loss, faith and resilience through the program. Other themes explored through this body of work include education as a pathway toward building/strengthening character, co-creating a dynamic and empowering learning environment, art at the intersection of education, culture and faith and art as a medium for dialogue between and among young and mature incarcerated and non-incarcerated persons

“The exhibit is a testimony to our students’ growth during their first semester. Students studied art history and were invited to become fellow artists. As Chris Wilson shares in The Master Plan, a book our students read before the course began, ‘It’s about being the artist, not just admiring the view.’ Wilson uses art as a metaphor for life. This exhibit follows suit, highlighting our students’ existential agency during their first semester of college,” Dr. John Fantuzzo, Interim Director of the Prison Education Program, said.

“The raw power of the visual art and poetry that our students created is evident the moment viewers step in the room, which in itself will be a recreation of the very classroom at SCI-Chester in which the class was taught. The exhibit is a testament to PEP’s ability to cultivate a learning community where students feel empowered and supported to express themselves in such a compelling and honest way. It is my hope that the impact of this project, and by extension, PEP, lasts well beyond the two week period,” Smith said.

Over this two week period, #CELEBRATEPEP held events at the Philadelphia Ethical Society highlighting the visual artwork and poetry of our students, including a spoken word event and a film screening/panel discussion in addition to the art exhibit displays. The film screening and panel discussion of PEP’s “Teaching Behind Bars: Lessons from Returning Citizens” was held on January 25 and included a viewing of the film with breaks throughout to discuss alongside one another. Following the film screening, John Pace, Kempis “Ghani” Songster, and Fahim Wyatt (featured in the film) answered questions and shed light on their personal experiences as former students of PEP and the importance of prison education. “Liberated Voices: Poems From The Other Side” on Jan. 27 was a spoken word event hosted by Christopher K.P. Brown, featuring Paul Buchanan, David Buckley, Kirwyn Sutherland, and Lee Horton, who offered powerful performances of their own work and on behalf of students at SCI Chester. “Celebrating Higher Education Behind Bars” moved from the Philadelphia Ethical Society to Eastern University’s St. David’s campus on Jan. 29 where the art installation was displayed in Warner Memorial Library and a community of individuals committed to higher education in prison congregated for an opening reception. The final event of this series was held on February 4 at the St. David’s campus, concluding with a night of poetry, music and conversation with Ursula Rucker and Miles Orion Butler.

This successful series provided valuable insight into the realities of prison as expressed through the artwork, emphasized the importance of prison education and the positive impact that it makes on individuals and the larger society and beautifully displayed the passion and hard work of our students at SCI Chester. We thank Tieshka Smith, The Philadelphia Ethical Society, Eastern University’s PEP, and the talented students for making “Celebrating Higher Education Behind Bars” successful and so impactful. To learn more about Eastern University’s Prison Education program, visit eastern.edu/prisoneducation. To see some of the specific art pieces of the incarcerated students, look at the center spread of this issue of the Waltonian.

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