That Moment When Art Upends Conviction

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Art can take you to unexpected places. A few weeks ago it took me to the Marion Correctional Institution (MCI) where I was invited to attend a TEDx event called Art & Conviction.

For two hours I listened to presentations, some by inmates of the facility, and then spent some time talking to the inmate that runs the art program at MCI. It was moving and inspirational in ways I didn’t expect.

It is easy to adopt a “lock them up and forget about them” attitude towards those who are imprisoned. They were convicted of a crime after all.

Artistic, creative expression, however, is a great reminder of the humanity of others, as well as our own.

The TEDx talks at MCI include music, dance, poetry, comedy, and stories.  Some talks are from current inmates but others are from family members of inmates, past inmates, and people who work and volunteer at the facility. One of those volunteers, I’m proud to say, is my friend Steven Anderson, the producing director at CATCO. He has spent more than five years working with MCI on a variety of projects, including writing and producing plays with the inmates.

Tom Katzenmeyer

Tom Katzenmeyer, president of the Greater Columbus Arts Council

There’s a great blog by Kendra Hovey describing the event http://tedxcolumbus.com/2015/04/.  I encourage you to read it.

The entire visit, from the TEDx performances to the pop-up gallery of art created by inmates, was intense—in the best way possible.

We humans are messy, complicated creatures full of layers and nuance. Art, in all of its forms, reminds of that fact. Art is more than communication it is connection.

The organization that coordinates the TEDx talks at MCI, Healing Broken Circles, develops a wealth of programming for inmates and their families. They are focused on helping people affected by incarceration.  These programs don’t just provide GEDs, they provide the kind of education that helps people realize their full potential and learn to heal what may be broken within.

The organization has five pillars of service, one of which is called Talented Performers: Art. The mission is to “develop programs that create connections and allow people to link in healthy, life-giving ways, provide skills and knowledge that encourage the growth of relationships, based on self-awareness and generosity.”

These programs help give meaning and purpose to the lives of the inmates. For some this leads to a more productive reintegration into society. Others, may be serving longer or even life sentences, but as these programs help them grow and heal they are able to mentor younger inmates and at-risk youth.  These mentorships have the potential to break destructive cycles.

This is what art does. It helps us grow, connect, and communicate in meaningful ways. For those of us invited to attend the TEDx talks, at MCI, art gave us new stories to consider. I was forced to reconsider preconceived notions. I walked away with a deeper understanding of a group of people that I honestly don’t reflect on often.

On that April Saturday they had my full attention.

Photo of the MCI ballet troupe, provided by Healing Broken Circles.

— Tom Katzenmeyer Keep up with Tom’s adventures on Twitter: @tomkatzenmeyer