‘Art Beyond Bars’ Allows a Glimpse into the Lives of Incarcerated Men

Artwork imagined behind prison walls will be displayed at Duquesne University, thanks to the work of the University's public history program, the State Correctional Institute Pittsburgh and the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program.

The exhibit, titled Art Beyond Bars, will bring about 20 pieces of artwork from different media-poetry, drawings, sculptures, raps-to the Les Idees Gallery in the Duquesne Union through Thursday, April 30. The opening reception will be on Friday, April 10, at 7 p.m. in Room 203 of the Union.

The goal of the exhibit is to "humanize the inmate, to show that everyday people can relate to these men in one way or another," explained Abigail Kirstein, a public history master's student involved with promoting the exhibit. "We are attempting to build this relationship through the medium of art."

While the men have the opportunity to share their work, they and the graduate students also have learned about curating an exhibit, constructing a historical narrative and developing public history skills.

Besides sharing this work with the campus community, the students also are working with residents of the men's home communities, offering them the opportunity to discover these previously hidden talents, share new viewpoints and engage with thought-provoking ideas represented in the exhibit.

The idea for the show is grounded in the work of Dr. Norman Conti, associate professor of sociology and leader of Pittsburgh's Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program, and Dr. Elaine Parsons, associate professor of history. The Inside-Out program holds classes inside jails and prisons, with class members including typical Duquesne students (outside) and incarcerated (inside) individuals. As an outgrowth of this work, Conti has established a think tank with seven men serving life sentences who hope to impact the safety of their home communities.

While working with the think tank, Parsons discovered that these men expressed themselves through art. "It is too easy for us to forget that there are many incarcerated people who are our neighbors," Parsons said. "They are physically walled off from us. But taking the time to look at their art helps us to remember them and ways in which we are connected to them."

Working with Dr. Michael Cahall, director of graduate studies in history, as well as the graduate students and think tank members, the idea of an exhibit moved forward. "This art tells a deeper narrative, one that most people do not get to hear, reflecting the past, present and future of these men," Cahall said.

Duquesne University

Founded in 1878, Duquesne is consistently ranked among the nation's top Catholic universities for its award-winning faculty and tradition of academic excellence. Duquesne, a campus of nearly 9,500 graduate and undergraduate students, has been nationally recognized for its academic programs, community service and commitment to sustainability. Follow Duquesne University on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.