Learning about the faces of capital punishment and solitary confinement
There is a cage we all long to escape from.
Your cage, may not be mine.
My cage, may not be yours.
—“Black is the Day, Black is the Night”
In 2009, photographer Amy Elkins found a website where death row inmates requested pen pals. Fascinated, she set up a postal box and between 2009 and 2014 carried on correspondence with seven death row inmates in different states.
While she originally introduced herself to the inmates asking for an open collaborative process, the project soon became large in scope and it became clear she was going to make work from it.
Elkins asked inmates questions about self-identity, memories, dreams, homesickness, families, books, exercising, daily routines, and times spent outside of the cell. And though generally inmates were reluctant to speak about their cases, many claiming innocence and working on appeals, two wrote back about their experiences with their own executions pending.
The men she wrote with spent an average of 22-½ hours a day in solitary cells roughly 6’ x 9’ and had served between 13-26 years at point of contact. Elkins wondered how facing mortality in total isolation affected one’s notions of reality and memories. She discovered that as time wore on the more profound the identity loss and memory lapse was. Everything became “more muddled” as time went on.
The Cress Gallery on the campus of The University of Tennessee Chattanooga is an academic gallery where artists are brought in alongside their exhibits to create a dialogue with students and observers. As part of the Diane Marek Visiting Artist Lecture Series, Amy Elkin’s exhibits “Black is the Day, Black is the Night” and “Parting Words” certainly start a conversation.
The main exhibit is a compilation of tangible objects—letters, drawings—interspersed with constructed landscapes and pixelated portraits composited to create image loss to correspond with the amount of years spent in prison. There is even a 6’ x 9’ replica of a cell. The exhibit title comes from a poem written by one of the inmates. Quotes in the exhibit are from the letters exchanged between Elkins and the inmates.
Though she spent a large amount of time dedicated to writing them, Elkins didn’t want to meet the inmates because she liked the bit of intrigue and wanted an old-fashioned letter-writing project. Besides that, there are extremely limited visitation rights at the prisons, and she thought it would shift intention and change the dynamic of the project.
So she photographed all of the things she was making and sent the images. Some of the inmates would critique them. One man had been afraid to put images on his cell wall because of the constant tearing down in the daily searches. He said the images of the sky she sent him gave him a huge sense of hope.
Naturally during the course of the 5-year collaboration, there were times when the project got too heavy. Elkins would continue to write but often got depressed. She says she fell short as a pen pal because it was a bit too much for her. At times she wondered where it was all going to lead or how she would possibly be able to even maintain it, but eventually a vision emerged.
“To me it is a collection of unreal mixed with brutal truths. Out of a collection of described imagination, quotes from poems they wrote, I had all this material and this was the story I was able to piece together.”
The other exhibit “Parting Words” is a visual archive of the 531 prisoners to date executed in the state of Texas—a powerful exhibit that puts faces to the issue of capital punishment. Final phrases from the prisoners are poignant, such as “I wish I could die more than once to tell you how sorry I am.”
This is the largest installation of Elkin’s work thus far. She has received a grant to publish a book of the project—a tangible object is important to her—that is due out later this year and will perhaps provide some closure for the artist, whose work is in the process of receiving awards and accolades and promises to have a long life.
When asked how this chapter in her life will affect her, Elkins responds “I always think about reaching out to family. I’m curious how it will stay with me. It lives on a fine line. Where will it tip? Sometimes as an artist I had to suppress my feelings to not be crippled by it. Then when other people see the exhibit and have such a strong reaction it reminds me that my feelings may be being suppressed.”
Visitors to the Cress can donate to the Appalachian Prison Book Project, a library that will ship up to 5 books for free to an inmate in an Appalachian state prison. For more information on the artist, visit amyelkins.com.