Hamilton, Ohio – It started with simple paper dolls.
While serving time at the Dayton Correctional Institution, Aimee Wissman began using art to maintain a relationship with her baby.
“First it was a means of staying connected to my (then-1-year-old) daughter,” she said. “Then journaling and drawing became a way to focus myself. It was a release valve.”
And still later, a lifeline. Not only for herself, but for other incarcerated people, too. Wissman created an art therapy curriculum and helped many find a voice and a means of expression.
“You get all these labels,” she said. "You can spend your lifetime caught up in all these things people call you. But ‘artist’ was something I could say about myself. And it was a label I was proud of.”
Upon her release, Wissman - a 2005 graduate of Lakota West High School – and fellow DCI alumna Kamisha Thomas founded the Returning Artists Guild in Columbus for formerly and currently incarcerated Ohio artists.
“We used our time in prison to prepare ourselves for all the things we wanted to do,” Thomas said. “It was always art that got us through.”
The first RAG exhibition - a 2019 pop-up called Grind/Time – appeared in 934 Gallery in Columbus, proving there was an audience for their work. The Greater Columbus Arts Council provided studio space for RAG. Thomas won a $20,000 award from the national Right of Return Fellowship for her film work.
Now – along with co-curator Dr. Nicole R. Fleetwood – they present Home Free: Ohio Artists Envision Prison Abolition at the Fitton Center for Creative Arts. Home Free – the ninth exhibition Wissman has curated or co-curated since 2018 - runs concurrently with Maureen O’Keefe’s Being Good. Both exhibitions go on view October 21 and have a gallery opening celebration from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Saturday, October 28.
Fitton Center Director of Exhibitions Cathy Mayhugh said Home Free packs a wallop.
“The work is astonishing in its emotional impact and the strength of the skill, media manipulation and range of style and content represented,” she said. “Aimee Wissman and RAG have worked so hard to offer this stunning show and it’s personally one of the most meaningful I’ve been a part of presenting. I’m so glad that RAG artists can be in dialogue with our community through their art and (I’m) glad to be getting to know them.”
Dialogue is one of the goals.
“If we can make somebody not see just ‘a criminal,’ but see a human being, a person – maybe a flawed person or somebody who got caught up in some bad decisions, but a person – we’ve done a good job,” Thomas said. “It’s all about the paradigm shift to seeing people.”
Wissman looks forward to sharing stories of art’s redemptive power in her former Butler County home.
“This is the place that sent me away, so in a way this is the place that needs to hear it the most,” she said. “This is a story that touches every community, whether they know it or not.
“I’m really proud of the diversity of this show. Not just the art, but the artists. Gender, geography, race, age, etc.; we’re all over the place. It really reflects the carceral system, too. There’s no one ‘type’ who gets incarcerated. It’s all kinds of people.”
Regular gallery hours for Home Free/Being Good are 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Fridays. Galleries also are open evening hours during Fitton Center events, including the Home Spun performance at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 28 following the gallery opening celebration.
Galleries are always FREE and open to the public. Guided tours are available by request and can be arranged at a mutually agreeable time by contacting Director of Exhibitions Cathy Mayhugh at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 513-863-8873, ext. 122.
The Fitton Center for Creative Arts is located at 101 S. Monument Avenue on the Riverfront in downtown Hamilton, Ohio.
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