Welcome to Pittsburgh! What do you want to do first? Not sure yet? Well what about plans for tomorrow? …Well you still have time to decide… Where are you staying? You haven't booked a hotel yet?!?!
Picture A Free World: Annual Let’s Get Free Art Show and Auction
We recently visited Regent Square’s Concept Art Gallery, a bright and airy space off Braddock Avenue that’s running Picture a Free World Art Show through July 29. This unique exhibition, the sixth art show of local advocacy organization Let’s Get Free, features the works of 60 artists in prison and 45 artists who stand in solidarity with ending mass incarceration.
Through an informative tour with organization cofounder and art show lead Etta Cetera, we learned about some of the talented creators and their colorful works, which range from cross-stitch and stained glass designs to textiles and pencil-on-paper drawings. They are grouped by theme, running the gamut from soothing, pastel landscapes to darker, war-centric paintings. Some depictions appear on materials like an actual leaf, or the brown paper lunch bags distributed to those in solitary confinement.
We were also able to interview local artist Dr. Amber Epps, whose collaborative piece with her youngest brother Oscar Brown is mounted as part of the show. Brown is incarcerated at SCI Laurel Highlands, where he’s serving a life sentence. He’s been there since 2006, when he was only 19 years old.
“He and our mother are the strongest people I know,” Epps writes on her website. “I am honored to be able to create art with him and share his work and his story with the world.”
Epps says it’s hard to define how long she’s been an artist. “Most of us have made things when we were younger (pre-school, daycare, etc.) that were art,” she says. “So I guess I could say my entire life.”
She’s a member of the #notwhite collective, and a few years ago the collective hosted an exhibit with a bird theme. She had planned to participate in the exhibit, but wasn’t able to. In preparation, she had asked her brother to write some text related to birds; the piece he sent was called "Caged Birds."
Epps then received a grant from the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council to support collaborative work with her brother. “Birds are thought to be free creatures,” she says, “yet people put them in cages and expect them to thrive in captivity. The same can be said about those in the prison system. Although he cannot just fly away, Oscar writes and participates in other activities, including building relationships, that allow his presence and spirit to go beyond the prison walls and impact others in a positive manner even though he is physically not free.”
For her portion of the piece, she used a variety of media including mixed media collage, video/audio, encaustic painting and sculptural assemblage.
One of the goals of this work, Epps explains, is to demonstrate how incarcerated individuals find ways to be free even though, physically, they are not.
“Our society tends to demonize incarcerated persons and paint a picture that they are monsters, regardless of the circumstances surrounding the situations that led them to prison in the first place,” she says.
“Because of this, this work seeks to humanize incarcerated persons and remind everyone that they do have hearts, feelings, hopes, dreams and people who love them.”
Epps primarily creates out of her basement, a makeshift art studio, and sometimes also at her workplace (Protohaven, a nonprofit makerspace located in Wilkinsburg). As far as the writing used in the creation, Oscar sent it to her through the mail. “He writes rather quickly, so his part did not take long,” she says.
“Creating this with Oscar was very emotional for me, but it meant the world,” Epps shares. “It has given me the chance to tell my brother's story while allowing him to show the world who he is as a person, not as an inmate.”
She hopes that this work will serve to change the narrative about incarcerated people and to help paint them as human beings, many of whom deserve a second chance.
“If prison is supposed to be ‘rehabilitative,’” she asks, “how can one prove that if they are always viewed and treated as less than, and are not given a chance to do so?”
Head to the Regent Square gallery Tuesday through Saturday, from 10 a.m. till 4 p.m. Visitors can bid on artwork (through July 23 at 8 p.m.) on a platform called betterworld, and all proceeds benefit the important causes and projects pursued by Let’s Get Free. While there, visitors may also buy $10 raffle tickets for a quilt that’s already raised nearly $3,000, or write out a card to a featured artist, poet or lawmaker. In the back of the space, a small “cash-and-carry” shop sells goods like jewelry and inexpensive art, which can be framed (for a flat rate of $50) by folks at the onsite studio.