For a year and a half, I have been working in conjunction with my Graterford Prison class, various ex-offender organizations, and families of the incarcerated throughout the city. Our collaborative workshops, and my subsequent mural explores the impact of incarceration on Philadelphia families.
Family Interrupted is my ongoing multidisciplinary project with the Mural Arts Program, that contains the input, stories, personal photos, and hard work of over 150 contributors to date.
Mural Arts and I have partnered with the Pennsylvania Prison Society, running workshops with groups of people and organizations (such as M.I.M.I.C. based in North Philly) across the city, as well as in the Prison Society, Graterford, and St Gabe’s Hall.
These participants are impacted by incarceration at various levels. For example, the Graterford class and their families are looking at 20 plus years of separation, one man in my class will be behind bars for his 40th year in 2011.
These men have seen the face of their entire family change in that time, yet there are dedicated family members that frequently still visit & write. In St Gabe’s, youth can qualify for weekend furloughs to see their families.
They have shared their experiences about the reintegration process within their communities and their own families to an audience of the teens and young adults of Mural Arts’ Youth Violence Reduction Program. These forums were one way in which people became involved.
The Guild program under Janice Smith constructed 12 mailboxes, painted by myself & the Graterford class. They are placed in Prison waiting rooms, the Prison Society, the Public Library, City Hall, The Gallery Mall and in neighborhoods. Each box comes with a questionnaire inviting the participant to share their thoughts.
In July of 2011, the mailbox portion of the the project was officially kicked off during a press event in City Hall. Salaam, a member of the guild, once incarcerated in Graterford spoke to those in attendance about this experiences. Salaam assisted with the mural throughout its duration.
We wish to hear directly from the families, also from a broader audience that may or may not be affected by incarceration at all. Each box advertises the project, provides pamphlets with resources, and points to the project website. www.familyinterruptedproject.com
The site is the third way people can participate, even long after the mural is finished. It was devised as a companion piece that runs beyond the life of the project. Acting as a way to provide people with a forum, while giving an outside observer insight into their experiences.
The “w” shaped wall lends itself to the narrative. The “incarcerated” right side of the wall is tucked away from view at first glance. It contains the faces and stories of ex-offenders and those still behind bars. Its about how their incarceration affected and forever warped their families, and their great sense of loss.
The “family” face of the site shows the words, images, and thoughts from the men, women, and children left behind to carry on. Newly christened breadwinners raising a family on their own and maintaining relationships across great distances to keep the family together.
Both sides look and reach toward each other over the center of the design that depicts visiting room life, and its fragmented moments of family interaction.
These scenes are interspersed among vignettes of the media, government, and general public opinion which can serve to further complicate that limited interaction.
The design contains 22 scannable codes that anyone with a smart phone can scan, to have an enhanced experience of the mural. A passer by can scan a code within the mural and be taken to a number of audio clips from our workshops with the Prison Society.
You can hear these stories straight from the people who participated during these discussions. A number of codes take you to pages of the site. People can have instant access to the resources page.
Most notably, visitors can even be taken to the “Share Your Story” page of the site and contribute on the spot! I feel that the timing is right for this kind of project. We now have the capacity to interact with the mural, listen, learn, and then respond.
Paint workshops were held throughout the city once the design was approved.
There was a wealth of information, and stories to share about the project at these paint days, while presenting an opportunity for more groups to get involved. With the website and the mailboxes, it will never be too late to contribute.
Salaam was a true champion for the project at these meetings, never passing on an opportunity to share his stories and trials about keeping his family close in spite of his incarceration.
St Anne's Paint Day in North Philly
St Anne's paint day in North Philly.
King Solomon Baptist Church, is the building adjacent to the mural. The mural's stained glass windows reflect those of the church, as a way to incorporate the mural's surroundings. Paint days were held in its basement.
King Solomon's pastor had a special connection to the project. Her brother is a lifer at Graterford, whom I have met many times. She has also lost members of her family to violence in the city. She provides a nuanced perspective to the conversation as a result of these struggles.
Family Interrupted in the studio.
My assistants worked on the 3rd and 4th walls of the mural while I was hard at work cutting the stained glass figures and windows.
Briana, a former student, became a lead artist on this project.
The stained glass was the first to get mapped out and installed. The mural slowly unfolded after that, one facade at a time.
The cinder block wall had to be paved over in the areas where the codes were affixed. I could not risk having the mortar lines cast shadows, interfering with the ability to scan.
Installation Detail Photo: Diana Gonzalez
Installation Detail Photo: Diana Gonzalez
The installation took a total of six weeks in spring 2012
From July 2012 until the new year, an exhibit of Family Interrupted was held at the Phila History Museum at Atwater Kent. Among the artifacts of the project was a 14 foot wide print of the mural, which people were able to scan with their smartphones.
To learn more about this project click here to visit http://familyinterruptedproject.com/, or visit the glass section of this website.