What Must Be Released
Artist Aimee Wissman began her latest work painting with the brilliant hues of spring. In many ways, it was an effort to appease critics troubled by her depictions of prison, substance abuse, violence against women, and the struggle for liberation.
“I was working in this happy palette and it started taking shape as sort of a landscape,” she explains over the phone from central Ohio.
Two golden cities, representing life and death, appeared on the horizon, along with a platform where black figures stood arrested in time. “In my mind, maybe some of these voyagers are specific people. Others are just ideas of energies or entities.”
Soon a female figure took shape on the canvas. Her body sprawls across the watery expanse, and the travelers’ platform rests on her chest. For Wissman, the presence of this female figure “became this idea to me about the ways that women’s bodies are commodified and utilized and necessary for life; and then the outcome of life being death.” The woman, she explains, is her grandmother Carole. “Once you go below the water line, her body is abstracted, but she’s definitely there.”
The mouth of a drain took shape—the entrance into Carole’s womb. “I think the vagina drain is the funniest part to me,” the painter explains, growing tender. “That’s when I realized the setting of the painting was a kitchen sink. I knew there was a body of water, but I could not quite tie that in. And then I was like, ‘Oh, it’s a sink. Grandma, it’s a sink.’” The painter beams, “My grandma had to have pink countertops, and she had to have a red kitchen sink. She was a traditional woman, in the sense that she spent a lot of time in her kitchen.”
Her grandmother’s presence in the painting is bittersweet. In March 2020, Wissman visited her grandmother regularly in what became Carole’s final days. Creating this painting allowed Wissman “to release some of the emotion that was tying me to grieving for her. I’ve had so many conversations about my artwork being dark in nature, and I know it is. But it’s what has to be released.”
Learning the art of grieving—of processing loss, affliction, discomfort—came at a cost.
Four years ago, she stood at the bedside of her fading grandfather. Sentenced to eight years in prison for robbery, though she would only serve five years at the Dayton Correctional Institution for women (DCI), Wissman had leveraged her success as an artist to garner the visit.
“I was shackled around my ankles, and I was cuffed and shackled around my waist, so I could only use my arms,” she recalls, her cadence quickening, “My grandpa was dying of emphysema and trying to uncover himself and sit up, and he kept trying, but I couldn’t help. I was shackled. And the officer just watched. The idea of just having to sit down and be uncomfortable—just letting yourself be sad because there’s nothing else you can do, not having access or freedom or privileges—that’s all normalized to me.”
Community Forced, Creativity Chosen
In DCI, Wissman came to know the boundaries of feeling and freedom intimately. Separated from her family, including her young daughter, and forced into a strict daily routine with strangers, Wissman quickly concluded, “Uh, I don’t belong here.” This thought was not a flash of superiority or an expression of remorselessness. It was the preamble to an ever-growing understanding: “Of the 900 women that I was incarcerated with, I think maybe a dozen of them needed to be in prison forever. But that was only twelve out of 900.”
Even for those twelve women, Wissman believes, there’s a better way to rehabilitate individuals and form communities of care and restoration.
“When you’re incarcerated you are forced into community,” Wissman begins, reflecting on her first days in DCI. She was surrounded by people for every meal, every recreation block, and every moment of rest. Conformity, it turned out, was a mandatory component of prison, imposed on incarcerated people through rigid schedules, uniforms, and minimal personal rights. “By nature of your forced participation in community, there are barriers to real community. The other kind of barriers were in personality and choices or how you spend your time. Everyone has an approach to doing time.”
During our conversation, Wissman recommended that I read Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration, by curator and scholar Nicole Fleetwood, to help me better understand her own method of passing and keeping track of time during her sentence. The idea of “marking time” may conjure stereotypical images of chalk tallies on a cell wall, but Fleetwood describes how events like eating green beans for the fourth time in a month or missing another of your child’s soccer seasons may be used to both manage and personalize time.
Time swelled, and Wissman looked for ways to fill the seconds. She started reading the work of radical thinkers like Angela Davis and Audre Lorde, who thought critically about established structures of punishment, oppression, and womanhood. At that time, she had not yet begun to consider herself an artist. She was enthralled with a wide array of musical styles, poetry, and visual art when she was a child. She was particularly inspired by the works of beat poets and other artists closely aligned with heroin use; and though she was not really able to materialize the creative ideas swimming around in her mind, the aesthetics of drug culture added a dark beauty to her own unstable childhood.
“As a teenager, I became a junky, in many ways, by choice. I didn’t really understand fully the consequences of trying heroin. So, then I was using heroin and in that space for like ten years before I went to prison.”
But in the expanded hours, Wissman began tracing a way toward self-restoration. She picked up whatever drawing materials were at hand and copied down images from books and magazines. The connection between her mind and her fingers sharpened, allowing her to graduate to free-hand drawing. “When I was in prison, I really developed what I would consider to be my process. The way that I like to approach painting is that I just kind of start on background work and I build layers. Ink, acrylic, charcoal, chalk, whatever!”
Incarceration changed Wissman’s relationship with everyday objects, making arts supplies and tools rare and valuable. All unauthorized and unaccounted materials—pencils, brushes, jewelry, electronics, even food—are considered contraband. The artist recalls a time when a broken, but cherished paintbrush was confiscated by a guard for fear that someone would use it for other, unapproved purposes. This level of restriction had a lasting impact on Wissman’s creative practice.
“So much of my process is trial and error because I didn’t have materials. Or if I came up on materials, they were precious. I was always trying to balance my need to figure out how to do things with my need to conserve or create supplies. So, I just developed a ‘let’s just see what happens’ approach to making art.”
“It was such a pathway to peace and an amazing tool for communication with my daughter,” she tells me, releasing a deep breath. “A way for me to process trauma and rage and emotions that were not appropriate to express or that I didn’t want to share. Art became this really cool way for me to release the pressure valve on a situation that was pretty intense all the time.”
As she grew, personally and artistically, she garnered attention from the women around her, and soon she was counseling others on how to form their own artistic practice. “People saw me drawing and they were like, ‘I can’t draw anything,’” she recounts. “And I was like, ‘Just start tracing.’ Then I realized the benefit for other people and the power of shared vision.” Each pen stroke led her deeper into a creative community that would later become an art therapy group. Wissman was particularly adept at helping her friends tap into personal creative processes that were both intuitive and healing.
“I was not the only artist in there who was skilled and able to teach and incredibly empathetic or talented. I just had a little more of a type-A, ‘go’ personality. I think it created a means for other artists to have the opportunity to share with each other and do things that were meaningful.”
Care in the Strange Society
For someone who has never experienced art created in prison, it’s significance may seem overstated. Nicole Fleetwood refers to prison art as its own genre, explaining that the “carceral aesthetic,” produced in the state of captivity, moves artists in prison to “imagine and then clandestinely construct other worlds” that articulate their experiences. It is both a traditional and dynamic genre, a living catalog of captivity’s effect on humanity. It includes centuries of cultural expression, from the field hymns of enslaved Africans in America to paintings and plays created in prisons like DCI.
“Art is relentless,” Wissman explains. “People want to have value. The art provides value.”
“Prison is a strange society,” she continues. “It’s a society that really values art, which is interesting because that’s not true [outside of prison] in the same way.” Art functions as both a commodity and currency in the carceral state. Like Wissman, many of the women in DCI were mothers fighting to maintain relationships with their children. “All of these mothers need gifts for their children, all the time. It’s the only thing we can do: send them cards, send them bracelets, send them things that we’ve had people make—portraits, or teddy bears, or whatever. Those commodities are actually highly valued.”
As the beads and bears pass from one hand to another, communities of care begin to form, woven together by a shared need to communicate value and experience. These communities allowed artists like Wissman to build a rapport with prison staff, permitting greater opportunity for creative expression.
In 2016, Wissman and four other artists developed their own screenplays, a collection of films known as Pens to Pictures. Under the guidance of writer and director Chinonye Chukwu, and with the invaluable help of the warden’s assistant, they created For They Know Not, a semi-autobiographical exploration of a woman’s journey in overcoming heroin addiction.
“Pens to Pictures was such a moment,” Wissman says, considering its legacy, “because it was undeniably, incredibly good content. They couldn’t look away. They couldn’t look away from the pain or the power or the intelligence behind it—and it was kind of disgusting that they were so impressed. They couldn’t imagine that we had made films that were this good. But we did make films that were that good. And I think those moments kind of do things to shift the paradigm.”
The films rolled into curated screenings and film festivals. Wissman’s film was submitted to the LUNAFEST women’s film festival; fellow filmmakers Beverly Fears and Kamisha Thomas screened their films with the NAACP and the Cleveland International Film Festival, respectively. Since then, the films have been shown at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio, and at events hosted by the Ohio Prison Arts Connection (OPAC), a coalition seeking to increase arts access for people who are currently incarcerated and returned citizens. The organization has since served as a supportive community during Wissman’s process of re-entry.
Re-entry is more than the singular act of collecting one’s belongings from the guards and walking out of the prison gates. On an institutional level, it is an extension of systematic surveillance, disenfranchisement, and public punishment in the form of probation and parole. On a personal level, it is a continuous process of reintegration and reconciliation.
A Bridge Back
Today, Wissman is an administrator at a local gallery, a steering committee member for OPAC, and a co-founder of the Returning Artists Guild. After five years in prison, Wissman’s relationship to the world was different.
“There’s a loss of reality when you’re first released. It’s hard to tell if it’s you or them—if you’re weird or not,” she muses.
She secured housing and created a daily routine that accommodated her work and school schedules, visits with her parole officer, and her daughter’s established lifestyle. The hours began to shrink as she oscillated between canvases in her workspace, seizing exhibition opportunities in the hopes of establishing herself as a working artist.
“You know, I don’t have time. That is the thing. I was forced to waste years—and to say ‘waste,’ maybe that is untrue. But on so many levels, many of those days were wasted. Now, to be trying to do so much and not have the time, is like the kind of irony that is deeply cruel. It’s not like I went somewhere and was really allowed to bloom. Yes, I did incredible things, but at a high cost and low returns. And pain and suffering. It feels like so much of this re-entry has been this kind of slow plod toward this place I want to be. And only, really, maybe in the last year or so have I seen some of those things start to come to fruition.”
Early in her re-entry process, she attended OPAC meetings and began carving out her own space within arts administration. “As I tried to define my role, I realized that I don’t want to be the token returning citizen. Being exposed to OPAC and the professionalism there allowed me to define what I could do for them. I started thinking, ‘Okay I need to get more artists on board. How do I do that? How do I get my people?’ And that’s it. They’re my people. Most of these people, most of these artists, are my friends.”
It wasn’t long before Wissman and Kamisha Thomas, a fellow Pens to Pictures creator and dear friend, created the Returning Artists Guild (RAG): “a network of currently and formerly incarcerated artists seeking and creating opportunities and community for inside and out.”
Representing OPAC and RAG, Wissman attended the 2019 Arts in Corrections Conference in California. The conference, aimed at increasing the capacity of individuals and organizations involved in prison arts work, offers workshops on artist development, teaching, and evidence-based practice.
“It was so amazing to be in a state where arts access was happening in institutions on the level that it happens in California. That sh-t was radical to me,” she begins. “But California was a place where most of the people in attendance were teaching artists, academics, lawyers, attorneys, nonprofit director-types, and a handful of returning citizens. I wore badges all weekend long, and every time I had a conversation with someone, I was having to introduce myself as a returning citizen. It was a three-day long thing, and it was exhausting—in a way that was really difficult for me to understand.”
Adept at confronting discomfort, Wissman turned to keynote speaker Nicole Fleetwood for guidance. As Fleetwood was taking notes, Wissman walked up to her to share her internal conundrum. “It was essentially, like, ‘I don’t know if I should be engaged in doing this kind of work or if I should be engaged in abolition.’ Because I have the fear that while working within the institution, I was actually strengthening the institution. That deeply troubled me.” While Wissman does not recall Fleetwood’s exact answer, “She made me feel comfortable in thinking about that because she essentially said that is the question that both of us, engaged in the work, deal with.”
“It was really a solid moment for me, because as an artist, I have the ability to decide how I want to engage the system. I don’t have to do anything anymore. But I cannot walk away because I love these people. And this is injustice, and it is not okay to ignore injustice. We’re not providing rehabilitation. We’re not providing support. We’re really not correcting behavior. So, what are we doing?”
She carries with her a question just as critical to her work as a trusted paintbrush: “What is the goal of a felony conviction? It’s the question I always ask prosecutors or judges or anyone who’s associated on that level.”
Recently, Wissman received the most candid answer yet from a prosecutor: “The goal of conviction is conviction. It’s a numbers game. And the underlying, maybe sinister piece of that is that the people they convict become disenfranchised—people of color but also people who are considered not valuable to society or profitable for exploitation. No one ever says justice. So, I keep asking the question.”
For Wissman’s own life, perhaps victory is merely a bridge away. This year, she celebrates being four years free from prison and newly off parole. The artist pushes forward, supporting her community of returned citizens using the tools of mutual care. The Returning Artists Guild, which began as a collective of artists in re-entry from DCI, has grown to include artists from different institutions, representing all genders, though female-identifying artists continue to lead the budding troupe.
Referring to prison as the “great equalizer and dehumanizer,” Wissman explains, “We have a lot of women in our ranks, but our primary mission is to humanize all system impacted people.”
In August, RAG held its first retreat. “I’m excited,” she tells me, her voice competing with the warmth of the July evening. “People are going to start participating and taking over some of the workload and defining exactly what everybody wants from us, and how we can help.” I share her excitement, as she regales me with the stories about her friends and the street art of Davis and Lorde she created for Black Lives Matter and the futures she dares to imagine. The bridge is already boarded.
Amber Long is an intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. She studied city and regional planning, ethnic and American studies, and creative writing at The Ohio State University. She would like to thank Aimee Wissman for trusting her with her story.