Upside-Down Art: Prison, Beauty and Common Grace
I'm so excited for this first guest post in this Upside-Down Art series. RO contacted me about an area she is passionate in--prisons and their inhabitants, whom she views with such grace and love. I had heard of writing/oral history classes with prisoners, but never art projects. This post eloquently explains the horror of incarcerating people and withhold from them the beauty of the world--while still showing that God is still there. A challenging, thoughtful post for us on the outside.
Prison, Beauty, and Common Grace by R.O.
There have been times in my life where depression and anxiety have walked every step with me. Their weighty bodies cemented to my shoulders like gargoyles, mouths permanently open-wide, hissing into each ear: “You are not good enough. You don’t work hard enough. You will mess up everything good in your life.”
But even in the midst of these lies, God finds ways to remind me of his truth. So often he does this through the beauty of the world around me. I see pink light from the setting sun angled on a grey building, hear something as simple and amazing as an echo, feel cold air sting my cheeks. And I think, “even if I fail at everything, no one can take this away from me.” This everyday beauty of the world, available to me in some form no matter my circumstances, is God’s common grace to all people. It is our Father reminding us that his love for us does not depend on our good performance.
It seems sort of simple when compared with all the atrocities of prison— the state’s misguided idea that trading violence for violence will end violence— but the profound indignity of denying a person God’s common grace of this world’s everyday beauty is striking to me. Prisons are designed for exactly this. They replace the beauty of creation that God would give to every person with cinderblock walls, artificial lighting, a stainless steel bowl acting as toilet a foot from your bed, access to an “outside” patch of concrete surrounded by walls for maybe thirty minutes a day—day in and day out, all the same.
And still there is beauty.
Prisoners become artists, creating the beauty that prison denies them, and I consider myself blessed to have heard some of their stories. There is the fourteen-year old boy who wrote poems in his cell, the man who is serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole who paints scenes of the world he hasn’t experienced in over thirty years, the girls at the youth prison who wrote and performed in their own musical, even the tough-looking young men who draw intricate and delicate designs on the backs of their letters.
These are people who are often excluded from that popular new category “creatives,” but they still are made (and are making) in the image of our Creator God. They create because there is no beauty unless they make it themselves. They create for the same reasons we all do: to comfort, to entertain, and to tell their stories. There are still more imprisoned people who are without the support of prisoner-arts programs, some without even pencil and paper, some in solitary confinement; let’s not forget that they are creatives, too. This is God’s common grace, which no one can take from us, that he has made us in his image; he has made us all creatives.
“For his participatory project, Some Other Places We’ve Missed artist and photographer Mark Strandquist held workshops in various jails and prisons, and asked prisoners, ‘If you had a window in your cell, what place from your past would it look out to?’ Along with the written descriptions, individuals provided a detailed memory from the chosen location, and described how they wanted the photograph composed. Strandquist then photographed and [an] image is handed or mailed back to the incarcerated participants.” from Prison Photography:
R.O. is a Midwestern law student who will soon be a Southern public defender. She loves to talk (and learn) about justice and mercy, living in the upside down kingdom, and criminal justice reform. Her Enneagram type is 5 and she is an INFJ, if that means anything to you.
For more information on the Upside-Down Art series, click here. And submit your own essay!