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For Sarah Ross, Arts Are A Vehicle For Change

Written by on May 5, 2022

Sarah Ross fights for the rights of the incarcerated through arts and education.

Sarah Ross is the co-director of the Prison + Neighborhood Arts/Education Project, or PNAP, an arts and education project providing classes, workshops and policy think tanks to incarcerated students at Stateville Maximum Security Prison. Upon moving to Chicago, Ross felt empowered by the city’s fusion of arts and activism. She saw the community impact of segregation and long-term incarceration, but she also saw a city full of hardworking activists ready to face those problems.

Chicago artist, educator and activist Sarah Ross is the co-director of the Prison + Neighborhood Arts/Education Project.
All photos by Morgan Ciocca.

The project originated in 2011, when Ross and four other educators began teaching poetry and art courses at a prison in central Illinois. Having previously taught for six years at Danville Prison, Ross wanted to base the project’s framework in discussion about policy and prisoners’ rights. She, and others, began envisioning how incarcerated individuals could have a voice on the outside. For Ross, the impact of artistic expression is twofold — it provides means for communication without words, and it pushes the boundaries of what already exists to imagine new realities. Through her work, she hopes to use these aspects of art as a vehicle for change, to give voice to those without one and to push forward toward new policy.

Since its inception, PNAP has grown to include exhibitions, public education events, 15 courses and a free degree program, in partnership with the University Without Walls at Northeastern Illinois University. They have carved a path for incarcerated individuals to earn a bachelor’s degree and displayed student-designed, community-painted murals around the city. Currently, three murals are located outside the DuSable Museum’s Roundhouse and one outside the Washington Park Fieldhouse. All four murals were originally designed on paper by incarcerated students.

For our audio interview series “This Is What Chicago Sounds Like,” Sarah Ross delves into her work with the Prison + Neighborhood Arts/Education Project and the importance of using the arts as a driver for liberation and social change.

“What does it mean to imagine spaces that don’t yet exist? What does it mean to imagine policies that could make our lives better?”

– Sarah Ross

Where are you from, and where do you live now?

I’m not from Chicago, I grew up in North Carolina. When I moved to Chicago, I felt so refreshed and empowered by the way artists and activists work together. And the way, you know, art was, like, could be silly and performative and experimental, and also take up really critical issues that were necessary to really think about and work with others on.

I’ve lived in Humboldt Park since 2011. In a really fantastic neighborhood that has a lot of original houses and a lot of original folks who have lived here for like 25, 30 years. So we have a super cool neighborhood of people who like to sit on their porch and check each other out and talk to each other about what’s happening. I feel grateful for that.

What are the challenges and triumphs you associate with Chicago?

From the perspective of the work that I do, which is both working with Prison + Neighborhood Arts/ Education Project, and also working with Chicago Torture Justice Memorials, the challenges that I see is that Chicago has long endemic racist problems in the police department. That’s also found in the structure of neighborhoods. It’s a really highly segregated city, but I think that what’s beautiful about the city is that, really, there are a lot of people organizing to fight that kind of segregation, to fight bad policies that continue to force people into segregation and to force communities to places where they don’t have access to resources. So I would feel really inspired to be in a city like this. I think that it’s a really creative city, and also a city of hardworking folks and people who are, who really can envision things.

Sarah Ross stands outside the DuSable Museum Roundhouse, where three murals designed by incarcerated students are on display.

What is the history of the Prison + Neighborhood Arts/Education Project?

I started teaching at a prison in central Illinois when I just got right out of graduate school. We started with a poetry class and an art class, and from there we quickly grew. The early days of that was kind of just forming an idea of, like, could we make work inside of a state prison and bring it out to communities, and have that be the basis of conversations about criminalization and policy, et cetera? Could people on the inside kind of have a voice on the outside through art and aesthetics? And the project’s always been shaped to have poetry and art as constant classes that we always run, and those classes often are thematic-based.

We curate exhibitions and think about important themes that folks inside want to talk about. Sometimes those things are policy-related and sometimes they’re more philosophical, like we did a whole year on time once. To think about how time outside is structured, where everybody’s so busy and they don’t have time. And then time inside is, like a… is punishment. The more time you have, the more you’re punished. And just, what does that continuum look like, from inside to out? So, we’ve done a range of exhibitions and really try to make spaces for, for people to come together, to talk about the issues that are in the art, made by folks inside, but also for families to come out and connect with their person through the art-making, et cetera.

Pictured above: (Left) One of the murals the Prison + Neighborhood Arts/Education Project helped to create outside the DuSable Museum Roundhouse, designed by incarcerated art students. (Right) Sarah Ross stands in front of the Washington Park Fieldhouse, where another mural is located.

Why is a project that features the artwork of prisoners important?

I think art’s an important vehicle because of two reasons. One, it’s another language, right? I was in a room with some people a couple of years ago, we were actually making an art project. Someone said, “We don’t need any more studies, stop making studies about people in prison. We already know what the issues are,” you know? And so I think art, it’s a visual language that can get us two steps further.

I also think that, you know, art does have this capacity to imagine something that doesn’t exist. It demands of us that we push the boundaries. Those are the sort of modernist ideals, ideals of art. But I think we can use those towards liberatory ends. Like, what does it mean to imagine spaces that don’t yet exist? What does it mean to imagine policies that could make our lives better?

I could give an example of that. We developed, like, a 13-minute, hand-drawn animation about long-term sentencing.  And you know, it’s a boring policy. If you read it, it’s, like, tedious, but it’s absolutely about people’s lives. It absolutely is about mass incarceration in Illinois. But who wants to read that? Because it doesn’t allow you to enter. And so I think that art allows you to enter. 

“The policies that come along with incarceration are really detrimental to all of our communities. Our whole city is segregated based on this idea of who’s a criminal and who’s not.”

– Sarah Ross

What are some of the programs you do?

We have a degree program that people can take our classes and apply them towards this degree. And we were able to graduate people with a bachelor’s degree, as a first time in the state of Illinois since the ‘90s. And we had Angela Davis and Chance the Rapper and the lieutenant governor come out for the graduation. It was pretty amazing.

Over COVID, Aaron Hughes and I taught a class through Zoom at the prison, and we worked with students and they designed six murals. And folks inside designed the murals on a 12-by-18 sheet of paper. And then we take that and we scan it, and we digitize it and we blow it up to the scale of a mural. There’s one of them right now on the Washington Park Fieldhouse.

The mural on the Washington Park Fieldhouse features Dr. Margaret Burroughs, co-founder of the DuSable Museum, a Chicago Park District commissioner and a former teacher at Stateville Prison and Pontiac Prison for more than 25 years.

And then there’s three that are along the wall outside the DuSable [Museum] Roundhouse. When we did the ones at DuSable, for instance, that was for Juneteenth last year, and just tons of people came out and we painted all day. It’s pretty fun, and it’s a really, it’s an interesting way that people will come together and talk about, you know, what they’re painting and whose work they’re painting. My colleague Pablo Mendoza was working with the people from the Real Youth Initiative.  They work with folks who are incarcerated at Cook County Youth Detention Center. And they have permission to come out to paint with us. So that seems exciting. 

Pictured above: PNAP hosted a community painting event in June 2021, bringing to life murals designed by incarcerated artists Devon Terrell, Mike Sullivan, Johnny Taylor, Juan Luna and Elton Williams. These three murals remain on display outside the DuSable Museum Roundhouse.

“I was interested in starting a project that can include art in poetry by incarcerated folks because they are the subjects of all kinds of policies … I think that their voice has to be included … in the creation of those policies.”

– Sarah Ross

How can this project affect policy change around prisons in Illinois?

There are, you know, at present something like 25,000 people that are locked up in Illinois prisons. That does not include youth facilities, detention centers or federal prisons. And so there’s many more people who are locked up in cages, and these places do not do what we have been told that they do for so long. It’s not about safety, it’s only about punishment. We are concerned in the city about violence; I am as well. Preventing violence does not mean locking people up. And the policies that come along with incarceration are really detrimental to all of our communities. Our whole city is segregated based on this idea of who’s a criminal and who’s not. 

And poverty and criminalization have gone hand-in-hand for centuries, right? I was interested in starting a project that can include art in poetry by incarcerated folks because they are the subjects of all kinds of policies that we have, when it comes to everything from social services to criminal legal policies. And so therefore I think that their voice has to be included in that, in the dialogue, and it has to be included in the creation of those policies. That doesn’t happen, it’s not very common. But I think that just demonstrating it as a vision is a way to start to get there.

Since 2016, we have been profiling people who give their all to Chicago — enriching us socially and culturally by virtue of their artistry, social justice work and community-building. Take a listen. Read their words. Become inspired.

Introduction written by George Chiligiris & Morgan Ciocca

Interview, transcription and audio production by Ari Mejia

Photography and editing for length and clarity by Morgan Ciocca

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