Milwaukee exhibit spotlights talents and stories of incarcerated people

Collection includes artwork made from toothpicks, medication, trash and other materials available to incarcerated people

A painting of a man sleeping on the floor in a prison
DarRen Morris’s piece called “Benny on the Floor in the Seg.,” made in 2016. Photo courtesy of Debra Brehmer

An ongoing Milwaukee exhibit aims to highlight the humanity and artistic talent that exists among Wisconsin’s often forgotten population of people behind bars.

“It is breaking the boundaries,” said Debra Brehmer, curator of the exhibit at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design. “Art is being made everywhere.”

An orange and blue portrait
Dominic Marak’s piece “Self Portrait with Tumors” from 2021. Photo courtesy of Debra Brehmer

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Almost all of the 65 artists are currently incarcerated, with the rest previously serving time behind bars. Many were self-taught and relied on limited access to materials. Toothpicks, milk cartons, paper and snack wrappers are featured in the collection. Some artists used dissolved antacid tablets for color.

One piece by Dominic Marak translates pencil drawings of fellow incarcerated people into collages using junk food wrappers.

“They are very elegant collages that he says speaks of the disposability of incarcerated individuals, how society views incarcerated individuals,” Brehmer said.

Brehmer and institute president Jeff Morin recently joined Wisconsin Public Radio’s “The Morning Show” to discuss the exhibit, “Art Against the Odds,” which runs through March 11. Morin hopes people receive the collection as evidence of a human need to make or create, and as an expression of humanity.

“It allows them (artists) to develop empathy and self-awareness and to have a sense of self outside of their criminal record,” Morin said.

A piece that sticks with Morin is a 5-feet-tall Ferris wheel model. It uses rolled-up computer paper, cardboard gears, string, a shampoo bottle and a sand mechanism that moves the wheel for about 10 minutes.

“It’s an amazing piece of engineering,” he said.

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A painting of a man being held underwater by various sea creatures
Richard Hasselburg’s piece “Starving for Air” made in 2022. Photo courtesy of Debra Brehmer

Sarah Demerath, who spent time incarcerated in Wisconsin’s Taycheedah and Ellsworth prisons, is one of the featured artists. She recently joined WTMJ-TV to discuss her abstract ink paintings, which reference her addiction to heroin when she was 19.

“The circles represent my eyes at different points of my addiction,” Demerath said. “I had all these stories in this long 16-year battle with addiction. The only thing recognizable to me were my eyes at that point.”

Brehmer said the art world has made progress over time diversifying whose work it showcases. But a perception remains that the art world is elitist and “occupied by wealthy collectors, wealthy people and powerful artists,” she said.

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“This kind of art is treated as ‘other’ within the contemporary art world. It’s not quite let in. It’s thought of as outsider art, therapeutic art or something else — something other,” Brehmer said.

“What we’ve done with the show,” she continued, “the very premise was to make sure that that did not happen.”

A piece of art showing a green structure
M. Winston’s untitled piece from 2022. Photo courtesy of Debra Brehmer

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