ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Now we're going to hear about an art exhibit called Ode to the Sea. In this case, it's the Caribbean Sea. The artists behind the oils, watercolors and sculptures on this show are current and former detainees at Guantanamo Bay. The pieces are on display at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. Rick Karr has the story.
RICK KARR, BYLINE: The exhibit started with a phone call. A defense lawyer who's represented several Guantanamo detainees rang up John Jay College professor Erin Thompson with a proposal.
ERIN THOMPSON: I'd love to have my clients' artwork displayed. And I said, what do you mean, Guantanamo artwork? She said, come to my office. And I did, and she started pulling out file cabinets full of paintings and sculptures.
KARR: Thompson is a professor of art crime who studies the ways terrorist groups loot and destroy art. She discovered that other lawyers also had collections of art from Guantanamo. Attorney Alka Pradhan has represented several detainees over the years.
ALKA PRADHAN: Every single one of them had artwork that was worthy of display.
KARR: John Jay College of Criminal Justice's mission is there in its name - to study crime and justice. Its galleries show works by U.S. prison inmates and foreign political dissidents. Another show up right now celebrates 9/11 first responders. There are eight artists in the Guantanamo show. Four have been released. A few years ago, the men started turning out still lives, sculptures and pastoral scenes - but most of all, images of the sea. The cells at Guantanamo are just yards away from the Caribbean. But, Thompson says, the sea's usually hidden.
THOMPSON: There are tarps covering all the fences. They can smell it. They can hear it. They can't see it.
KARR: Then three years ago, a hurricane approached Cuba, and the tarps came down.
THOMPSON: So for four days, they could see the ocean.
KARR: For some detainees from landlocked Afghanistan, it was the first time. The men built model boats, painted seascapes in oil and pastel and rendered two depictions of the Titanic, one of them in gravel and sand gathered from the exercise yard. The film "Titanic" is one of the few available to detainees from the camp library.
Of the nearly three dozen pieces in the exhibit, just one is an abstract work. From a distance, it looks like brightly colored candy buttons swirling down and away into a void. Upon closer examination, there's an inscription - vertigo in Guantanamo. Paige Laino is one of the show's curators.
PAIGE LAINO: It looks fun on the surface, but there's a lot of, like, very tortured pencil marks. And it's - I mean, it is a black hole. It's a fun-colored black hole.
KARR: The artist is Ammar al-Bluchi, the only so-called high-value detainee in the show. He distributed money that the al-Qaida conspirators used to carry out the 9/11 attacks. A military commission is set to try him on charges that carry the death penalty. Attorney Alka Pradhan represents al-Bluchi and loaned the piece for display in the show. Pradhan says her client painted it in an effort to describe what she calls the lingering effects of torture after he was captured.
PRADHAN: This was the first time he was sort of able to explain. He's like, I can't always put into words what this feels like. But if you look at this painting, that's what it feels like at the back of my head all the time.
KARR: Curator Erin Thompson says whether a viewer sees al-Bluchi as a mass murderer, a victim of torture or both, it's possible to learn something from his art.
THOMPSON: So whether you're using that to learn about the person as a person or whether you're using it to learn about what makes a terrorist tick and how we can prevent terrorist attacks in the future, I think either approach is valuable.
KARR: Ode to the Sea is on display at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice through January 26. For NPR News, I'm Rick Karr in New York.
SHAPIRO: And after the art went on public display, the Department of Defense suspended its policy which allowed artwork by detainees to leave Guantanamo.
(SOUNDBITE OF FLOWTEC'S "PLEASURE")