'Incarceration' exhibition's art shines a light on dark corners of justice

For Leslie D. Davis, art is a form of activism.

The glass artist from Laguna Beach is co-curator of "Incarceration," a new show at the Orange County Center for Contemporary Art that focuses on the country's criminal justice system — and, Davis hopes, will inspire audiences to fight for reform.

"I'm not for letting out and rehabilitating people who committed some hideous violent crime," Davis said. "But we have so many sick people, addicted people, mentally ill people making up a major part of our prison population.

"And once I faced that, and started meeting people who had kids in prison for drug arrests, I just felt like I had to do something."

Davis conceived of "Incarceration," on display at the Santa Ana art center until March 11, with her brother, Gregg Stone, a Laguna Niguel-based artist.

For the past decade, Stone had been holding art shows featuring the work of inmates as a way to raise money for incarcerated people — an idea that Davis expanded on for "Incarceration." The show features paintings, sculptures, video installations and other creations by more than 40 artists nationwide, inmates included.

The works all address the U.S. prison system, which, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, is holding more than 2.2 million people.

"Our prisons are just warehousing human beings right now. Our rate of incarceration since 1970 is up over 700%," said Davis, citing a statistic from the Pew Charitable Trusts. "If we just put the money into taking care of them in the first place, we would have a safer society, where you don't keep locking people up again and again."

Davis and Stone, who is also a co-curator of the exhibition along with Pat Sparkuhl, contributed the installation piece "Solitary Confinement."

"It's an alcove that looks like it's looking into a prison, down a row of cells," Davis said. "And then my brother has painted a picture of a young Hispanic man with a tattooed head looking out, and there's a light hanging down that's shorting out, so it's kind of dark in there. It's an emotional piece to help people relate to prisoners."

Davis hopes the piece will encourage viewers to fight for an end to solitary confinement, which more than 80,000 men, women and children across the country are subjected to each year, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

A piece by Laguna Woods sculptor Gary Simpson is meant to help viewers visualize the scale of mass incarceration in the United States compared to the rest of the world.

In "The World Is Flat – Prison Scale," Simpson uses Plexiglass and metal to depict incarceration statistics across the globe. Each country has its own Plexiglass square and metal rod, the size and length of which represent its prison population (one square inch of Plexiglass equals 4,000 inmates) and rate of incarceration (one inch of rod equals 25 people per 100,000 behind bars).

The United States has both the largest Plexiglass square and the longest metal rod — meaning the largest prison population and the highest rate of incarceration — which Simpson said should immediately jump out to the viewer.

"The idea of graphically displaying [incarceration statistics] with the sheer size of the panel says a great deal to someone's eyes," Simpson said. "So even if they're not reading about it, they're seeing it."

The exhibition also includes two animated videos that explain the historical roots of the criminal justice system. Hip-hop mogul Jay Z voices the four-minute "The War on Drugs is an Epic Fail," and MacArthur "genius grant"-winning social justice activist Bryan Stevenson narrates the six-minute "Slavery to Mass Incarceration" — the story of how the enslavement of African people has evolved to mass incarceration of African Americans today.

Davis also organized two panel discussions on March 4 as a way to further engage the community on the topic of incarceration. The speakers will include a detective, public defender and judge, as well as representatives from nonprofits such as Homeboy Industries, Friends of Orange County Detainees and the Collaborative Courts Foundation.

"What I'm trying to do in this public form is to put together a public resource list so that people who are coming to the show and discussions — the mothers, fathers, brothers, aunts of people who need help, from the newly arrested to the newly released — can find help in Orange County," she said.

"There's help out there, but we don't know about each other. I'm hoping this show will pull all these different people together."

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IF YOU GO

What: "Incarceration"

Where: Orange County Center for Contemporary Art, 117 N. Sycamore St., Santa Ana

When: Until March 11; museum is open from noon to 5 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays

Cost: Free

Information: (714) 667-1517

Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil is a contributor to Times Community News.

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