A notification seeking visual art was posted in flyers at Minnesota Correctional Facility—Shakopee, Minnesota’s only state prison for women. Flyers were also left on every table in the dining room. Jennifer Marx pretty much ignored them. It seemed like a contest to her.
Marx is many things. She’s a Human Resources professional at a nonprofit, a visual artist, a daughter, an addict in recovery, a devoted daughter, and a board member for Art from the Inside.
Art from the Inside is a nonprofit that advocates for visual arts programming in correctional facilities, lobbies at the state legislature for supportive arts programming for incarcerated persons and people on supervised release, and partners with universities offering degree programs in correctional facilities. More than anything, the organization promotes healing.
“I was stuck in my art. It was like I wasn’t even incarcerated anymore. I was free.”
When Marx was incarcerated, she says art “was my time, it was my escape. It was my meditation. It was my way to get away. I would put earbuds in my ears and sit for hours in my cell and escape. I was stuck in my art. It was like I wasn’t even incarcerated anymore. I was free.”
A few days before Marx was released from prison, a Department of Corrections employee who worked in the kitchen encouraged her to submit a drawing to Art from the Inside. “I had nothing,” she says. “I had a number two pencil. I had sent out my property; I was leaving. So I did this piece of art. I handed it in on a ripped-up half piece of paper.”
She left prison, took up residence at a halfway house, and forgot all about it.
“All of a sudden I got this care package in the mail from Art from the Inside with all their watercolor paint supplies and the book my art was published in, and I was like, ‘Oh, this is so cool.’” She shared the book with her mother, who told Marx she was proud of her and encouraged Marx to continue. “I never thought my art would ever be in a book,” she says.
Now, Marx supports the organization and its efforts to expand art offerings in correctional facilities by serving on their board.
Ricardo Dominguez is into pop art, “abstract stuff,” he says, “anything that has heavy use of color. I like to keep things fluid, really defined, ‘pixely’ so it all blends together, moves and flows.” During his incarceration at Stillwater, Dominguez was enrolled at Ashland University and had access to art supplies through its visual arts program where the budget was limited to $100. “It was restricted to basic colors and twelve brushes, five canvases, and really rudimentary lids. But the people there made it work.”
Speaking about how he felt the first time he sold one of his paintings, Dominguez remembers thinking, “Holy shit, maybe I got something here. Maybe everybody is right, because everybody’s telling me my stuff is good.”
Today, he works with Art from the Inside as a board member and an ambassador for expanding visual arts programming in Minnesota prisons.
“Getting out of prison and having all these opportunities has been a blessing and something that I’d never seen myself doing. It’s really satisfying to do something good,” he says.
Gaining support for arts programming in prisons is not easy, Dominguez says. “What goes behind that feeling is opening new doors and trying new things and not everybody’s gonna be on board with it, of course. But it is about trying new things and taking steps in unfamiliar territory—that’s how you grow. And that’s how you learn life experience, that’s how you become better as a person.”
The co-founder of Art from the Inside, Antonio Espinosa, worked at Minnesota Correctional Facility—Stillwater for almost 20 years. Among his assets as a correctional officer were his ability to build relationships among the people who worked there and the people who lived there, his gift for communication (in English and Spanish; Antonio is of Cuban descent), and his ability to keep his work in a dynamic perspective—to see the trees and the forest, the daily tasks that keep the prison running right, and the opportunities for healing that lay beyond prisons. He says that in his work as a correctional officer he tried to be “fair, firm, and consistent.”
All of Antonio’s gifts were summoned in the days following an epic tragedy, a gruesome human error.
On July 18, 2018, Antonio’s colleague and friend, Officer Joseph Gomm, was killed by a man incarcerated at Stillwater. From that agony, a pain that’s still palpable when he speaks of Officer Gomm today, Antonio turned to his faith, asking God out loud, “What is it you’re telling me to do?”
Antonio’s answer arose from what he knew of the men who lived in Stillwater. Antonio saw the men in Stillwater as individuals with vastness and multitudes. He got to know the people who lived at Stillwater, what they needed to work on and what they did well: this man is funny; this man is strong; this man is a great cook; this man is a leader; this man is a brilliant artist.
After years of seeing visual art in cells, Antonio realized he could promote positive change by making it possible for artists in prisons to make more art and by exhibiting and selling the art they made. He also began to realize he could affect more positive change by advocating for people who are incarcerated and by doing that work outside the prison system. As the idea for using art to change how incarcerated people see themselves and how they’re seen by others gathered shape and structure, Antonio started Art from the Inside with his wife Jessica, herself a gifted administrator with a talent for written communication and navigating bureaucracies.
Michele Livingston, a Minneapolis resident who has a son and a nephew who are incarcerated at Stillwater, describes Antonio’s efforts as his way to help more people “[recognize] the humanity of the folks who are incarcerated,” she says. “And [for them] to reach out to their own humanity too.”
Antonio describes his primary goal as healing. “We need healing with everything,” he says. “There’s no healing, and that’s what we need. That’s the uncomfortable conversation Art from the Inside wants to have. It’s trying to find the healing points, trying to uncover all the different layers of trauma that people have gone through as a victim, or as a parent.”
“The perpetrators, the families, everyone needs some sort of healing. Stillwater needs healing too; the whole system needs healing.”
If we begin with the idea that incarceration arises from error — often human error, community error too, institutional error sometimes, systemic error above all — we’re left to consider how best to respond to those errors.
We incarcerate people seeking particular outcomes, like deterring crime, punishing those who commit them, incapacitating those who may commit crimes, restoring victims, and rehabilitating people who break the law. While there may be disagreement on which of those goals should be prioritized, ultimately we all want to be healthy and safe. We’ve been incarcerating people for centuries, and it makes sense to consider whether America’s approach to criminal justice has led to safer communities.
While that discourse seeks a resolution, Antonio and Art from the Inside continue the work they’ve been doing since 2018.
Their work centers artists in a way they expect will advance restorative ideals. It’s healing for incarcerated people as a way to promote healing in the community.
Art from the Inside has staged three exhibitions of visual art made by people who live in correctional facilities, hosted many community engagement events centered around the art and the artists, and sold dozens of pieces by artists on the inside, some of whom have gone on to become artists on the outside. All proceeds from art sales go directly to the artists.
Antonio has earned recognition for his work. Art from the Inside is a registered nonprofit with support from institutional donors. Antonio was selected for a Bush Fellowship in 2021, and a Humphrey Policy Fellow the following year. He was also chosen by AARP of Minnesota and Pollen Midwest as a 50 Over 50 honoree in 2022.
Through it all Antonio has remained humble and focused on honoring his friend, Officer Gomm, by expanding possibilities in Minnesota prisons and communities. “There are guys in there who write books,” he says. “There are guys in there who write poetry. There are guys in there who paint; it’s so powerful. Like them, I am learning how to express myself.”
“That’s why I want to bring out art from the inside. People can change. That’s why I keep doing what I’m doing.”
— Antonio Espinosa —
Roberto Lopez-Rios and Lenell Maurice Martin are currently incarcerated. Their work is used throughout this story. You can find out more about them from this video:
Art from the Inside from Barbara Wiener on Vimeo.
2023 Exhibition: IDENTITY, Part 2
Wed, Apr 5, 2023–Sun, Apr 30, 2023
Join Art from the Inside for Part 2 of their series IDENTITY at the gallery at Creators Space in downtown Saint Paul. This powerful exhibit features original works created by artists at Minnesota correctional facilities in Lino Lakes, Rush City, and Shakopee.
*If none of these times work for you, please email firstname.lastname@example.org to set up a time for a showing that works for you.