Updated February 15, 2023 at 10:46 AM ET

Making and sharing art is powerful — and maybe even more so for people who are incarcerated. That's the premise behind a huge new initiative from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which is pledging $125 million to arts and humanities organizations that focus on mass incarceration.

In 1991 in Ohio, Dean Gillespie was convicted and then imprisoned for 20 years for crimes that he was later found not to have committed. While he was incarcerated, he kept his sanity by creating miniature sculptures out of things he scavenged from around the prison. He created whimsical bits of Americana from stuff like the foil from packages of cigarettes, used tea bags and pins from the prison sewing room.

Some of Gillespie's miniatures became part of a project called Marking Time, which presents visual artwork made by both currently and formerly incarcerated artists as well as other artists whose work responds to the carceral system.

Nicole Fleetwood, a professor at New York University and a MacArthur "genius" grant winner, is the curator and author behind Marking Time, which made its debut as an exhibition. She explains how Gillespie reclaimed his sense of time — and held onto his sense of self — through making his art.

"He would think in advance, 'It's going to take me three months to make a little miniature camper. It's going to take me six months to make this dinette,'" she explains. "It was a way for him to feel like he was managing the time that the state had placed upon him as punishment for a crime he didn't commit."

Fleetwood says that the genesis of this project, which encompasses both a book and a visual art exhibition that has been crisscrossing the country since its debut at MoMA PS1 in New York, began with her own lived experience of visiting relatives incarcerated in Ohio.

"I would notice that in many of the visiting rooms of prisons, there would be these makeshift galleries where art would be on view," she recalls. "Also, there were small provisional photo studios in the visiting room where incarcerated people could take pictures with their loved ones."

"Being a scholar of visual culture and art," Fleetwood continues, "I got really curious about the visual culture and art-making worlds of people in prison — and how art-making and creativity could be ways of envisioning freedom, envisioning the future, or staying connected with loved ones and building community inside prison."

Marking Time is just one of the arts and humanities projects being funded by the Mellon Foundation. Mellon notes that nearly half of all Americans have a relative who's been imprisoned, meaning that the organizations it funds could reach a huge swath of people in this country. That's especially true in communities of color, who feel the overwhelming impact of mass incarceration.

Since 2020, Mellon has already granted some $40 million to this effort, which it's calling Imagining Freedom.

The four newest Imagining Freedom grantees are The Formerly Incarcerated College Graduates Network, which promotes the education of people formerly imprisoned; the Flashlights Project from The Jailhouse Lawyers Initiative, which is a public digital archive chronicling the experiences of incarcerated justice advocates; several storytelling, publishing and arts-based initiatives at Interrupting Criminalization; and the group Study and Struggle, which organizes political education, study groups and mutual aid.

In all, Mellon says it will grant $125 million to this work. One fundamental question has driven Mellon here, says the foundation's president, celebrated poet Elizabeth Alexander.

"How do we understand our society, that is, one where we don't 'other' people and forget about them, where we don't dehumanize people and say that they don't deserve some of the same basic human rights?" she asks. "The right to learn, the right to dream, the right to seek knowledge, the right to imagine."

Fleetwood says that bridging those gaps between incarcerated and non-incarcerated artists is important to her project. Instead, she says, such artists should be understood in parity with each other.

She uses the example of artist Tameca Cole, from Birmingham, Ala. While imprisoned, Fleetwood says, Cole "created this really incredible graphite collage called 'Locked in Dark Calm.'"

"It received a lot of attention and praise as a signature piece in Marking Time," Fleetwood says. "Tameca made that work and donated it to a nonprofit called Die Jim Crow that then auctioned it as part of a fundraiser. She had no idea what happened to that artwork. It actually is really important piece of work that she made during a very difficult time during her imprisonment."

Marking Time was eventually able to connect Cole to the person who bought her work — and that person was willing to give it back to Cole. "Locked in Dark Calm," Fleetwood notes, is now in the collection of New York's Museum of Modern Art.

Fleetwood says that the support of Mellon and other philanthropic organizations reflects a turning point in broader awareness of the issues surrounding mass incarceration in the United States.

"It does feel like a seismic shift in terms of broader public awareness and getting the resources to really do the work, both on the research level, but also really in terms of direct impact, helping people get out of prison," she says.

Fleetwood points to another Marking Time artist, Ndume Olatushani, as an example of that relationship. Olatushani was in prison for 28 years, and on death row for nearly 20 of those years, for a crime he didn't commit. The sentence was for the 1983 murder of a grocery store owner in Memphis, Tenn. — a state that Olatushani says he had never visited.

"He started painting [in prison], and would donate his paintings to anti-death penalty activism," Fleetwood continues. "It was through making art, and connecting with activists, that he was able to actually end up free — through many, many years of lawyers working pro bono to help get him out." The sentence was overturned in Dec. 2011, and Olatushani was freed the following June.

Mellon Foundation president Elizabeth Alexander points out that the range of grantees for Imagining Freedom is vast — ranging from larger, well-established organizations to smaller, grassroots efforts.

"We have Dwayne Betts and his Freedom Reads initiative. This project is an early one in this initiative and a grant very, very, very dear to my heart," Alexander says, pointing out that Betts, a Guggenheim fellow and another MacArthur "genius" winner, has studied poetry with her.

"He's a poet," she continues. "He's a lawyer. He was incarcerated at the age of 16, was put in solitary confinement, where while there someone slid a book underneath the door, a book of poetry. That began his journey to imagining possibilities and devoting himself to words. And this grant will put beautifully chosen, 500-book libraries in every single prison in this country."

Alexander says that the arts and culture have what she calls a superpower: to convey these stories, to build connections, to create understanding, and to encourage discernment and critical thinking. She hopes that other people — both on the inside and out — will be similarly inspired.

Edited by: Ciera Crawford

Produced by: Anastasia Tsioulcas

Audio story produced by: Isabella Gomez Sarmiento

Audio story edited by: Ciera Crawford

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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