MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
"The Writing On The Wall" takes the words of incarcerated people beyond prison and jail walls. The project began small but gained new visibility through projections of the writers' words on the sides of buildings in the U.S. and Mexico. Jon Kalish reports that it is a collaboration between a conceptual artist, a college professor and those whose words they want to share.
JON KALISH, BYLINE: Devon Simmons served 15 years in New York prisons.
DEVON SIMMONS: (Reading) Limbs hanging off the tree limbs, skeletons of these, deranged and strange fruits with strong, braided brown stem contrived by envy.
KALISH: He reads from a poem by Carl Bernhard (ph) that is part of "The Writing On The Wall" project. Simmons graduated from the Prison to College Pipeline program, which included a seminar with artist Hank Willis Thomas, one of the co-founders of "The Writing On The Wall." Speaking via Skype, Thomas says working with his incarcerated students sparked the idea of sharing their creative output with those on the outside.
HANK WILLIS THOMAS: It was a eureka moment. Look at all the wisdom, look at all the heart that is imprisoned in our society. There was a huge hypocrisy or irony that I thought we could and should be focusing on.
BAZ DREISINGER: There was so much poetry in there - just so much beauty - drawings, thoughts - so much reflection of humanity.
KALISH: That's Baz Dreisinger, the other co-founder of "The Writing On The Wall." She also founded the Incarceration Nations Network, a coalition of prison reformers, and she teaches English at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
DREISINGER: Technically, I was teaching English classes. But really, I was teaching criminal justice through the lens of the humanities. And that, to me, is what "The Writing On The Wall" is.
KALISH: The idea for the project came when Dreisinger showed Thomas some of the writings she'd been given by incarcerated people. The two enlisted architects to design a mobile installation booth that resembled a prison cell with the words of the incarcerated on the walls, floor and ceiling. The idea was to take the booth to cities around the U.S. and Canada. But after its New York debut, the tour was cancelled by the pandemic.
SIMMONS: "Prison By COVID" by Mr. Roland Davis (ph). (Reading) We were all taken over by a virus more serious than any terrorist attack. As the days and weeks turned into months, Americans locked themselves into their homes in fear of what was to come. We - we had to lock inside our cages because it was the safest place for us to be.
KALISH: With the tour cancelled, the organizers got the idea of projecting those words on public buildings, often ones that are part of the criminal justice system. They enlisted a company called Chemistry Creative to come up with a projection system. The last installation was at Brooklyn Public Library. Standing outside, Chemistry Creative producer Sydney MacDonald describes the first projection.
SYDNEY MACDONALD: Nobody was out on the streets. There were still very strict bans on everything being closed, and nobody actually really saw it in real life besides the people who were there to put the projections on.
KALISH: But since then, "The Writing On The Wall" has been seen in Detroit, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Columbus, Ohio., and Mexico City. Again, artist Hank Willis Thomas.
THOMAS: There is nothing that I as an artist or anyone could really do or say that was more extraordinary than the things that these artists were doing. As you can see, I talk about them as artists, and some of them had not thought about themselves as artists, but it was clear that they were.
KALISH: One of those artists is Devon Simmons, who is now working as a paid curator and tour guide for the project.
SIMMONS: If you take the time to actually read some of the material that is in the installation, you recognize that the people who are incarcerated are not only talking about issues that they're enduring in prison but talking about issues which impact mainstream society as a whole. So I think it's really powerful for "The Writing On The Wall" to be in these public spaces, to create that dialogue, to creating the change that we need to see.
KALISH: In the coming weeks, "The Writing On The Wall" will be projected on buildings in East Harlem, Boise, Idaho, and the San Francisco Bay Area.
For NPR News, I'm Jon Kalish in New York.
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