On The Inside, a huge survey of art created by LGBTQ prisoners, features passionate images of joy, sex, and strength, alongside piercing personal testimonies. “>
What is striking about On The Inside, a group art show of works by LGBTQ prisoners at the Abrons Arts Centre on New Yorks Lower East Side, is how tender, even romantic, the images are.
There are few images of incarceration or suffering, and instead many images of magical fairies, gender-blurring beauties, muscular bodies, love, sexiness, warriors, prayer, figures of faith, and iconic heroes. 4,000 images were submitted from LGBTQ prisoners all over the US, with 450 selected for the final show.
Around these images are printed the writings of the prisoners who created the art sent in letters alongside their works to exhibition curator Tatiana von Frstenberg (full disclosure: she is the daughter of Diane von Frstenberg, who is married to Barry Diller, chairman of IAC, which owns the Daily Beast). Von Frstenberg made a donation for each work of art to the participants; their first names or initials are attached to the works.
Some images are simple, others more elaborate and colorful. The images were created mostly on letter-sized paper, using dull pencils, and ball-point pen ink tubes (the hard shell is deemed too dangerous). One picture of a line-up of prisoners features a woman among the men; a sea of faces is broken by the presence of a nude body held aloft; a gorgeous, muscular body has a non-gender specific face; Bruce B.s The Wandering Mind features a woman in repose; James L.s features a spotlit owl.
As you linger over the images, the captions–which provide a moving snapshot of the added layer of harassment, prejudice, and discrimination LGBTQ inmates experience when incarcerated–prove piercing.
One of the male guards liked to sit four feet away and watch me shave my body and shower when he was on duty, writes Paula W. Hed ask me what I would do for him if I asked him for anything. Another guard that escorted me to the doctors office said, I bet you enjoyed that after my prostate exam.
I have been stripped of all my property, clothing, mat, and left to sleep on a steel bunk in 30-degree weather, writes Felicity. Ive been harassed time and time again for my identity, being a flamboyant fem gay. But still I stand, I wont bend and I wont break. I am proud of who I am, I carry myself with gay pride 24/7.
I just cant understand why our proud American culture is accepting of our inhumane, undignified prison system, writes Tony W. It is insane to treat people horribly for years, then return them to society. Ive become wise, yet pissed off.
Im a happy gay man, but have a lot of problems with other inmates so I lose myself in drawing, writes Ronnie S.
I have been locked up for the past 23 years, writes Jimmy W. I told my brothers and sisters that I was gay, and till this day I have yet to receive mail from them. But I feel great and love myself.
Not all is grim. I had several relationships in prison and had the best sex I can possibly imagine, writes Cheyenne. My favorite part of the day was lockdown. We would make out until the count, thats when the real fun started.
One image features a heavily muscled guy holding another slighter guy: Familiar acts are beautiful through love, its caption reads. A set of portraits include nudes, Nelson Mandela, a couple holding one another, fairies and humans with butterfly wings. There are hunks in leather and a self-explanatory picture entitled, Gay Pandas Fucking, and then a stunning portrait of a beautiful, bearded man.
Inside and outside prison walls, art has always been the freedom only a higher being can bring, writes Yenniel H. My mind, hands and pencil combine to express something greater than myself.
A religious section includes images of God, Jesus and the Virgin Mary, and a caption by Ziva: I used to think that prayer was sorta stupid, praying to someone you cant even see. But now after experiencing it I see why people get on their knees to do it.
Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and Abraham Lincoln feature on a wall of heroes, alongside superheroes, and then in a central blocked-off area, the size of a solitary confinement room, even more explicit images of penises and vaginas.
Sitting inside this solitary confinement room, von Frstenberg reveals how she compiled the show over almost five years. She made contact with the prisoners through the LGBTQ prisoner support organization, Black and Pink, which she describes as like a family, a wonderful organization.
The results of a survey of LGBTQ prisoners experiences conducted by Black and Pinkaround issues including parole and gender and sexual identity–are printed on the walls of the solitary confinement room.
The 46-year-old Von Frstenberg said the idea for the show came as she was beginning a 30-day period, each day performing a pledge of love. Her idea, to have a prisoner pen-pal, became the seed of the exhibition when her online research led her to the Black and Pink website.
The long gestation of the show, she says, was ideal as she suffers from a debilitating muscle condition, Myotonia congenita, and has done since she was a young girl. The nature of thisvon Frstenberg has just suffered an excruciating flare-up, which led to her mother buying her a scooter so she could work on setting up the showmeans she must conserve her energy, and work at her own speed.
Its the inability to relax, she says of her experience of the condition. Its a decreased ability to relax out of contraction. If I sneeze I cant open my eyes. If I use my strength, my muscles jam and lock. My muscles are always damaged, and I have an inability to recover from damaged muscles. But my muscles are always getting damaged, so Im in a lot of pain. Everything hurts.
Von Frstenberg grew up in New York, the daughter of Diane and her first husband Prince Egon of Frstenberg, which makes her a princess-in-name. She is extremely down-to-earth, intensely thoughtful and committed to her work, and dressed in light, casual clothes deliberately chosen so as not to hang heavily on her body. She is close to her older brother Alexander (were connected, were both Aquarians), born the year before her.
Suffering from the muscle condition all her life has made von Frstenberg reflect on how biology informs ones identity. One reason I relate to this show is that I believe biology informs ones entire personality. I never played as a kid. I couldnt. I always had to be in a seated position observing, reflecting. I did really well at school. I got into Brown University at 16. I generated ideas, stories, because I never participated in any physical activity whatsoever.
I felt like an outsider. As a disabled woman, I feel marginalized. I don't have fear of mortality. When you live with chronic illness you imagine a release. I want to be alive, but I don't want to be in pain. The pain is really intense.
It must have been strange to grow up, feeling like that, in the whirl of fashion and the fashionable, I say.
It was really weird, von Frstenberg says. I cant actually wear the clothes, but more than that I cant relate to the aspirational-woman model. I have to emerge from within because my limitations make me. I cant decide to be something and chase that, because it doesnt work for me.
Her family has been supportive, she says.
My mom has learned a lot from me and I think I have been her teacher in a lot of ways. She really gets me, she can tap in to it. Were super-close and shes super-respectful of me. She can feel me. With the scooter, shes such a savior. Im usually bedridden for a few days when Im in crisis, which is very isolating. This will really help me. Next time Im in crisis, which happens quite frequently, Ill use it.
Von Frstenberg wasnt diagnosed with Myotonia congenita until she was 21. I overcompensated a lot as a kid. I really struggled to keep up. It was thought I was acting up, different, eccentric, my teachers thought I was rebellious. I really wasnt. I was late getting to class because of my condition.
My grandmother lived at home with us. She was a Holocaust survivor, and had osteoporosis resulting from malnutrition. She didnt know why I liked lying on her bed with her and talking, so I did have company. She was very bright and encouraged me in psychological, philosophical, and critical thinking.
The diagnosis wasnt just a relief, it meant she could teach myself not to teach myself to hurt myself to keep up with those who were able-bodied. I don't like to look in mirrors. My physical body holds me down. I kind of like to deny it. I connect to my heart and mind.
She didn't know going to beach could be fun until really recently because I used to go to hold everyones shoes and bags. Its really hard to grow up different.
However, she insists she is no "tragic figure." Her personal transformation, as von Frstenberg puts it, began six years ago when she began writing. Her parents were creative, and her 16-year-old daughter Antonia has applied to go to art school.
As a parent, suffering as she was and unable to do what most parents do with their children, von Frstenberg found honesty with Antonia was best. I had strict boundaries because of my limitations. As a result, Antonia is very compassionate and thoughtful, and independent.
Von Frstenberg describes her own sexuality as fluid. At the end of her college years she fell in love with film-maker Francesca Gregorini, who she later made the film Tanner Hall with. Von Frstenberg was with Antonias father, actor and writer Russell Steinberg, for eleven years.
She is single at the moment, and focused on her "wellness." Living in Los Feliz in Los Angeles, she is happy to be surrounded by loved ones and friends.
My dad was gay, she says. He had a lot of internalized homophobia early on, and had a really hard time coming out to me initially. He got better with it. Growing up in the fashion world meant I was basically raised by the LGBTQ community entirely. They were the only people I could really relate to.
She recalls being 8 and 9, during the dark days of the AIDS epidemic. I saw everybody getting sick and I was young. I lost a lot of friends. That completely traumatized me. People were whispering things behind my back, not telling me because I was a kid. I wanted to offer my love but I wasn't allowed to.
I saw so much shame. I saw so much hiding: the dyeing of hair, the wearing of suits, changing your look not to disclose your status, a faade–and to have that internalized shame of being ill and I think I internalized the shame of being ill too. She pauses. That was an epidemic, and there is also a hidden epidemic of LGBTQ prisoners.
The isolation von Frstenberg felt because of her illness means she identifies strongly with the experiences of the prisoners whose work she has curated.
She talks about the kid who hadnt come out to his family messing around with a guy in what turned out to be a stolen car. He was arrested, and called his mom, who he hasnt heard from since. Another trans woman has been for years, without even having a trial.
The misconception created by the media is to make everyone in jail seem really dangerous, when in fact the prison population would be massively reduced if they decriminalized sex work, or stopped arresting under-18s, or stopped jailing people for the technical violations of probation. A lot of crime is poverty-incited. Von Frstenberg decries those agencies and businesses who financially profit from incarceration.
The 4,000 works of art came in spurts over the last few years, von Frstenberg says. She was struck by the feeling of worthlessness expressed in the letters, being forgotten, not mattering. The other side is, through this show, being remembered. The exhibition, having their work shown, their work being wanted, restored their faith in humanity. I dont want people to think of this as outsider art though. These are artists who are currently incarcerated. Think of it otherwise and it becomes horribly exploitative.
After the show, von Frstenberg plans to continue working on her autobiographical graphic novel, My Summer, Unapologetic, set when she was a teenager wrestling with her disability, and on holiday with her dad and brother in the Mediterranean. Its a coming of age tale for all of us: my dad comes out in it, and my family breaks up and comes back together. (Her father died in 2004, aged 57, of complications arising from liver cirrhosis and Hepatitis C, she says; she does not know if he was HIV positive.)
Von Frstenberg and I finish our talk by surveying the pictures of celebrities prisoners have submitted. They include images of Marilyn Monroe (made ingeniously from Kool-Aid and an asthma inhaler), Michael Jackson, Robin Williams, and a set of particularly memorable images of Rihanna. (Hurrah, no Kardashians.) Theyre figures who have fought back, been persecuted, survived or endured demons, says von Frstenberg: They are vulnerable and assertive.
Michael Jackson was so misunderstood, so I drew him because I understood, writes Marvin D.
Surveying the art, von Frstenberg says exhibition visitors will be able to send text messages to the prisoners whose work is on show. What I hope is that people realize the enormous amount of talent, complexity, and culture of LGBTQ people within prison. You cant stereotype and forget them. I want people to be wowed by the quality of the work, and the voices of these people to be heard.
Before I leave, I read two more of the artists captions.
As a gay child I was accepted openly by my grandparents, writes Christopher R. Its a shame not everyone is accepted for who they are.
It shouldnt matter if society doesnt accept us, writes Joseph B. Who are they to judge and look down upon us? They are no better than usthe same God that put them here, put us here too. Now I am open about my sexuality, and I encourage you to do the same and experience true freedom. If no one told you that they love you, I am telling that I love you, OK?
On The Insideis on show at the Abrons Arts Centre, 466 Grand St, New York, NY 10002, until December 18.