Incarceration seems hopeless by design. Even beyond the realities and limitations inherent in the nature of a prison sentence, the environment itself can feel crafted for despair.
Visiting family members of the incarcerated know well the shades of gray and right angles that run from the concrete walls to the electronic body scanners to the tile floor. Here in Indiana, this gray might even feel like an extension of the colorless winter skies and barren landscapes that surround the facility for many months of the year.
This spring, however, the persistence of hope was manifest. As visitors entered the Westville Correctional Facility, they were scanned and patted down among a panoply of color that transformed the security gate into an art gallery. Nearly 100 images were displayed in quilt-like fashion—a tapestry of reds and blues, oranges and greens, water and trees and birds—inviting onlookers not only to attend to beauty, but also to consider the artists who created the pieces deep within the walled facility.
The artists were students enrolled in Introduction to Watercolor through the Moreau College Initiative (MCI), an AA and BA degree program for incarcerated people run by Holy Cross College in partnership with the University of Notre Dame. Rev. Martin Lam Nguyen, C.S.C., who has taught through MCI for six years, says he does not teach his students how to paint; he teaches them how to see. In turn, his students, through their painting, challenge perceptions and invite others to take a deeper look.
The artwork in this essay is but a sample of the many images that make up the exhibit, with a piece here from each student in Nguyen’s class. We invite you to look at the paintings in front of you and consider the artists behind them.