Dr. Nicole Fleetwood

Art historian, curator, and 2021 MacArthur Fellow
Headshot of a womanb

Photo credit John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

Jo Reed: The creation of art has its foundation in individual expression, while the prison system is based on regimentation and the suppression of the individual.   So how is it possible then for incarcerated people create art—yet they do. In spite of the constraints and limitations. This is the subject of Dr. Nicole Fleetwood’s work. Dr. Fleetwood is an art historian and curator. She explores how the art of incarcerated people is essential to our understanding of mass incarceration and the people it affects. And its for this work that she’s been named a 2021 MacArthur Fellow.  A professor of Media, Culture, and Communication at NYU, Dr Fleetwood  is the author of the award-winning book Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration   and curator of the acclaimed accompanying museum exhibit, also called Marking Time. In both the exhibit and the book, Dr Fleetwood uncovers the cultural, personal, social, and aesthetic significance of incarcerated people’s art. I had the good fortune to speak with her last December—here’s our conversation.

 Well first of all, Dr. Fleetwood, thank you for joining me, I really appreciate it.

Nicole Fleetwood:  I'm so happy to be here, I wish we were in person but… <laughs>

Jo Reed:  I do too, but let's begin with this extraordinary project, both a book and an exhibit, Marking Time.  How did this begin for you?

Nicole Fleetwood:  Wow.  So it began as a very small and intimate project of grappling with how hyper-incarceration has impacted my family in Southwest Ohio.  I grew up in a town called Hamilton, Ohio, it's in Butler County, it's in a really conservative part of Ohio, and we were raised in a small Black community there, and by the time I was a teenager in the mid to late 80s I just witnessed the onslaught of aggressive, punitive policing, the militarization of police forces, even in small communities like where I grew up, and just was astounded by the way that hyper-incarceration impacted especially young Black boys in my community.  Many of my cousins ended up in prison, many of them ended up arrested, and then let go without charges, and some who ended up serving many decades in prison. As I went on in school I was always a good student and as I moved along with my education I was always haunted by the way that prisons in the carceral state had impacted other people in my community who didn't make it out.  And so after I finished my first book, Troubling Vision, in 2010, I couldn't shake just these images of my incarcerated relatives that many of them would send from prison. It was a project that I actually really resisted, and I felt guilty about resisting it, I have to say that, and so over the course time I started to just explore these really quiet images that are made inside prison visiting rooms when loved ones go to visit their incarcerated relatives. In some occasions incarcerated people like for holidays can pose in front of painted backdrops, the backdrops are also painted by incarcerated people.  So it started with a couple of dozen sets of images of loved ones, and posing with loved ones during these visits, and from there it has grown into a rather large scale project that includes collaborations with dozens and dozens of artists, organizations, and activists across the country, it's a book as you mentioned called Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration.  It's also a traveling exhibition that debuted at MoMA PS1 in September of 2020, and just recently last weekend closed at the Abrams-Engle Institute for the Visual Arts in Birmingham, and in the spring of 2022 it will be traveling to the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, Ohio which is literally 30 minutes away from where I grew up and where this project started.

Jo Reed:  When you wrote the book, did you envision an exhibition?

Nicole Fleetwood:  So to be honest I did not know I was writing a book. I wrote an article about these pictures that I mentioned, these photos of my incarcerated relatives, and that was published in Public Culture, and I actually didn't know if I would have the strength, the wherewithal to continue this project because there was just so much grief that poured out as I was working on it and just longing for my family, and just a lot of pain and isolation and the stigmatization of being criminalized or having loved ones criminalized.  So I didn't know it was going to be a book let alone an exhibition, but as the project grew and I met more and more artists, (so the basis of the book is over 60 interviews with currently and formerly incarcerated artists,) and to be honest I could have written two or three books based on like the wealth of materials that were shared with me, but as I gathered more and more materials and interviews I realized, okay, this is longer than an article, this is a book. It wasn't until the book was in the copy edit stage, and I was really so deeply moved that it was turning into a book, but I also felt like this can't just be a book, it has to be able to reach audiences that might not want to read an almost 300 page fairly dense academic book published by Harvard University Press. So then I began this journey of figuring out how to create an exhibition, and I had done some exhibitions before I should say like at Rutgers and then collaborating with organizations like Muir Arts Philadelphia, also a place up in the Bronx, a multiservice center in the Bronx called the Andrew Freedman Home where I had done an exhibition in 2017, and also collaborating with Aperture, but this felt like much larger scale, and it was also a bit like blind calling because I tried to create relationships with culture institutions in New York and their fortresses, <laughs> they don't just read anybody's exhibition prospectus so it was also figuring out how to navigate that entire world to get a yes.

Jo Reed:  How did you connect with imprisoned people, I mean what was that process like finding them and then looking at their art?  How did you go about that?

Nicole Fleetwood:  So again I started small with what I had and what I knew.  I told my cousins, at some point I said, you know, "I want to do a book about art in prison," and my cousin Allen who at the time was in prison, thankfully he's released now, he laughed, and he said, "How are you going to do that?"  He said, "Everyone in here considers themselves an artist," and it was just great insight for me around also like what people do when they're held captive, when everything that's familiar and they love is taken away from them, a lot of people turn to like their creativity as one site of autonomy or semi-autonomy. Getting materials and getting resources to make art, and also skillsets sometimes creates relationships of dependence and vulnerability,  so Allen put me in touch with Dean Gillispie who is an artist featured both in the book and exhibition and made these gorgeous miniatures during his 20 years in prison, and they had been in prison together for like I think their sentences overlapped for like 15 to 16 years, and they became great friends.  I was so curious about that relationship too because Allen grew up in a small town but fairly urban part of Ohio, and Dean is a white man from like a rural very even more conservative part of Ohio. And I realized that art making in prison facilitated these relationships that cross racial and ethnic boundaries, that cross other kind of boundaries that are really strictly reinforced in many prisons as a way of maintaining order and keeping division between imprisoned populations.  So yeah, I started small with the people I knew, and by 2014 I was able to fundraise, I was directing an institute called the Institute for Research on Women, and my colleague Sarah Tobias and I fundraised to do this national conference that was one of the important seeds of this book it was called Marking Time: Prison Art and Activism, and we brought in about over 110 people, many of them formerly incarcerated people, some of them are people who had never been on a plane up until their release from prison, and so many of the voices that show up in the book and the artists who show up on the exhibition were people I met during that 2014 gathering.

Jo Reed:  Can you explain or share rather some of the constraints that people in prison have as they create art, I mean what does it actually take for an artist to create and share work in prison?

Nicole Fleetwood:  So that was actually the question that drove this project, that question--I was so curious about exactly that question, but I also had these ethical commitments, I'm an abolitionist, I believe that we need to come up with more humane, more caring, more transformative ways of dealing with law breaking harm and other kind of social infringements. I think we should not be putting people in cages.  So I wanted that ethical commitment to run through, my love of my family to run through, but it's also like my own obsession around human creativity.  I find human creativity to be more fascinating that almost anything on the planet, and I really wanted to know how does human creativity thrive when one is held in punitive captivity, when one is held in a six foot by nine foot cell, when one is again removed from everything that's familiar to them, everyone and everything they love, when so much of their sentence is about material constraint, about not having access to materials, about not having access to space, to teachers, to all kinds of resources that artists outside of prison many of them take for granted. Whether they have money or not, still they tend to have a type of mobility to go around and even forge for materials, and all of that is up for grabs in prison.

Jo Reed:  Can I add one other one too which is I think prison is so much an attack on the senses, how loud it is, and the way it's devoid of color, and no sunlight, and then to actually be creating art in a place like that is extraordinary.

Nicole Fleetwood:  Absolutely, and I have to say that sensory overstimulation or sensory deprivation, that both of those really just run throughout the project so much so that there's one chapter in the book that's exclusively about making art in solitary confinement where--

Jo Reed:  That was a tough chapter I've just got to say.

Nicole Fleetwood:  Oh my god, <laughs> I'm not giggling because I think it's funny, it's more like release, I mean it was a really hard chapter. It's removing people away from almost everything that makes them human, and is a form of what Ruth Wilson Gilmore says a premature death, I mean people who spend a long time in solitary confinement come out with often really intense long term medical and psychological damage, and often cannot return to a general population because they've been what philosopher Lisa Gunther says they've been unhinged from themselves. And people in solitary confinement also don't have access to programs that run for general population, they don't have informal art collectives to make art with, and so often their only relationship is with the self or through some sort of correspondence course like Billy Sell who was in a correspondence course taught by the Prisoner Express which is run out of Ithaca, New York, and there was a volunteer teacher Treacy Ziegler running a drawing class who would send Billy Sell drawing instructions, and he would draw and then mail these drawings back to her.  So it was this correspondence course that really sustained him, and he would write these very emotional letters both about his feeling inadequate which is a common effect of solitary confinement. So these letters really document this, as he struggles to make art, and he's someone who actually didn't survive solitary confinement, he was part of a hunger strike in California and was found unresponsive in his prison cell.

Jo Reed:  As I looked at the exhibition and read the book, the materials that incarcerated people use to make art, and the way they repurpose things is, again, the innovation just knocks your socks off.

Nicole Fleetwood:  Right.  So prison bedsheets are commonly used, like Jesse Krimes who's become quite well known as an artist, he's been out of prison now for I think six or seven years, and while he was in prison he made this large scale mural that's I think it it's something like 15 feet by 40, and it's over 39 prison bedsheets and it took him three years to make this. He was able to through networks in prison get these bedsheets which that in itself is considered contraband and it's an infringement of prison rules quote to mark on state property.  So he had to do this in stealth ways, and so once he'd have a bedsheet completed he'd find a way to send it out of prison, and did this over three years, and wasn't able to see the work in its completion until he was released from prison and found a space big enough.  Gilberto Rivera who's good friends with Jesse, they were in prison together, used his state issued clothes for this really powerful mixed media collage called "An Institutional Nightmare." I mentioned Dean Gillispie earlier, he would find items from trash that had been discarded, he'd also have friends help him what he would say quote procure materials which means to take materials without the <laughs> permission of the state in the service of art making, and so many of his miniatures incorporate wood blocks from the wood workshop or sewing pin needles that someone had sneaked out or other items that he was able to acquire.  He has this one movie house that he created, it's a miniature of a movie house with these hundreds and hundreds of little bricks that he fabricated in his cell using dental compound that someone was able to sneak out of the medical office.  So these are all just some examples of the type of innovation and experimentation that takes place in prison. So much of it especially in the visual arts is incarcerated people experimenting with color because there's also very, very limited color palettes that they have so often they're using Kool-Aid or M&Ms or other kinds of materials that they can dissolve to create some type of hue, and that is definitely a way of refuting what you mentioned earlier which is the very drab conditions under which people are incarcerated.  What else came out in researching in terms of just thinking about what type of art is made is like the predominance of portrait making in prison. It's the most common form of art making, and it is very literally a resistance to state issue IDs like the mugshot and the prison ID card.  A lot of incarcerated people don't have access to other images of themself or very limited images of themself and so portrait making becomes this really important way of creating images that are much more about a type of elevation and veneration, and that's often about self-presentation especially when incarcerated people are involved in self-portrait making.

Jo Reed:  The cover your book is "Pyrrhic Defeat" by Mark Loughney, and it’s a series of portraits and “Pyrrhic Defeat” takes up an entire room of the exhibit.  I'd love to have you talk about that and why you chose it for the cover.

Nicole Fleetwood:  Yeah, happy to do that.  So Mark Loughney is currently incarcerated in Pennsylvania.  We're hoping that he'll be released--he's up for parole at the beginning of 2022, and since 2014 he's been engaged in this very rigorous, expansive series called "Pyrrhic Defeat: A Visual Study of Mass Incarceration." The series consists of portraits of other incarcerated people who are serving time with him, and so he asked fellow imprisoned people to sit for about 20 minutes, most of these sketches are no longer than 20 minutes, but they're really detailed, expressive, evocative works.  They're all 12 inches by 9 inches, at this point I think he's up to about 750 of them, and for him it's also really important that they be understood together as one work and shown together.

Jo Reed:  They're individually so striking, but the power of all of them is extraordinary.

Nicole Fleetwood:  So the power of all of them for him is really a way of visualizing the toll of mass incarceration from the site of captivity, from someone who's in prison reflecting on what mass incarceration looks like.  I often also will use the word hyper-incarceration because it's not the mass incarceration of everyone, it's not spread evenly across this nation or a state, right?  It's the hyper-incarceration of specific populations. Those populations almost are exclusively Black, Latin-X, poor White, Indigenous people, gender nonconforming people, unhoused people, people with undiagnosed mental health issues.  So it's like the most vulnerable populations being hyper-criminalized, hyper-punished, and hyper-sentenced.

Jo Reed:  You talk about both in the exhibit and in your book the community that's created around art, and we touched on that a bit in this conversation with your cousin Allen and with Dean Gillispie, and also with the Fairton Collective, you mentioned Gilberto Rivera and Jesse Krimes and the third leg of the Fairton Collective is Jared Owens, and they were all in prison together.  Tell us just a little bit about how they came together.

Nicole Fleetwood:  So one of the most captivating things that I learned through this research is that in no way do I want to valorize or romanticize prisons but they are these hubs of creativity, and there's a lot of informal art collectives, peer mentoring, there's some formal classes taking place through like the William James Association and other organizations that bring arts into prisons, but so much of what takes place is these informal networks of people coming together to make art and to really claim the time that they're being punished, what I call penal time, and turning it into something else.  And the Fairton Collective consisting of Gilberto Rivera, Jesse Krimes, and Jared Owens is a multiracial group that formed in a federal prison in New Jersey.  They all were interested in art before they arrived at Fairton.  Jared had been there for many years before Gilberto and Jesse arrived, and he was trusted among the prison staff and was allowed to run this very small makeshift studio room where a few artists could come in and have a little bit of studio space. And he, Jesse, and Gilberto, very different personalities, very different styles of making art, they hit it off. Jesse is White, Gilberto is Puerto Rican, and Jared is African-American, and they just really committed to each other, it became a lifelong friendship, all three of them are out, they're all successful artists, but so much of the work they're doing now that's getting critical praise, the seeds started when they were in Fairton. They would do these hours-long critique of each other’s work, they would resource pool, they didn't have money to subscribe to all the art magazines so one would subscribe to Art News, one to Art Forum, one to Art in America, and they would share the magazines with each other, share techniques, they would all get assignments to do research on a specific artist and to come back to the group and talk about that artist.  You see the power of that collective work in their contemporary success here in 2021.

Jo Reed:  Have the artists in the exhibit been able to see it at all, people who are still in prison, have you been able to videotape it and send it to them?

Nicole Fleetwood:  It's a great question, and so one of the things I want to say is that contact and communication with imprisoned people during COVID has become more difficult for everyone.  So a lot of the organizations that were running programs in prison still have not been able to go back in person.  COVID has isolated imprisoned people even more, and with that said, anyone who's participating in Marking Time who's in prison, what we do is we print, you know, paper is still in some ways the easiest way of communicating with incarcerated people, so we print out reviews, news highlights, images of artwork, so installation shots.  In some of our online events, Zoom events, we've been able to facilitate conversations that include incarcerated people often through a loved one or an organization that's able to accept the collect call and then we're able to patch that in through Zoom. It's not like a perfect patch but it's a way of at least getting those voices in conversation.  So that really is an ongoing process, and I want to say it's like constantly evolving, that's where I feel like creativity is really important because the state's power, the state's mandate is really to isolate incarcerated and keep them as separate from what's familiar to them as possible and to the outside world, and so people on the ground who are really committed to undoing carcerality have to be creative about ways of being in conversation with imprisoned people. But what I want to say is that a couple of the artists in the exhibition are no longer alive, and that's Billy Sell, and then Ronnie Goodman who was someone I had great conversations with passed away during COVID on the streets of San Francisco.

Jo Reed:  And his picture opens your book.

Nicole Fleetwood:  It opens the book and it's such a wonderful-- it's for me that painting still teaches me, I go back to that painting, every because it's just to me is like one of my greatest teachers about the states of making art under punitive captivity, and also how this is not an aspirational story, I mean people do this to survive but they're still living lives of vulnerability inside prison and once released.

Jo Reed:  Do you mind just very briefly describing that painting?

Nicole Fleetwood:  So the book opens with a painting, a self-portrait, of Ronnie Goodman in the arts workshop space at San Quentin where over the course of his almost ten years there he estimates that he made over a thousand works. And it's a really quiet, contemplative painting of an artist at work, and so you see Ronnie studying one of his prints in this cavernous workshop space.  It's like a two story workshop space where light is pouring in and art is all over the wall, and then up above you see a window where the prison guards can look down and not be seen-- visual signifiers that oh, this is not just any art workshop space, this is taking place in a prison. I was so captivated by this painting, but it took me years to be in touch with Ronnie, then when he and I were able to talk about it, it just blew my mind how he described the work and how he described his own practices of planning for it and how it was also a painting that's putting him in a tradition of artists at work who document themselves at work, but also he was memorializing this space that he never wanted to go back to. He also calls himself curating, he said, "I was curating because," he's like, "these are not how the other paintings were hanging on the wall, it's how I wanted them to be presented on the wall," and he's making multiple paintings in this self-portrait because he repaints all these artworks around him as part of the larger kind of environment that he's trying to document, so we really get this both interior and exterior sense of the stakes of art making in prison.

Jo Reed:  I love the light in it and the way he uses light, but what I find most interesting, it's both immersive and at the same time we have some distance from it.

Nicole Fleetwood:  Yes, exactly, and that's why I say interior and exterior because you do have some access to like this is a person in deep contemplation, but then you also get a sense of the environment around it, around him and all the artwork.

Jo Reed:  Nicole, I know you have to go and you only have time for one more question. And I do want to talk about the MacArthur Award. First of all, congratulations on being named a MacArthur Fellow because of all this wonderful work that you've done, and I'm wondering because I know the award comes with a certain amount of financial flexibility, if this gives you the opportunity to extend this project.

Nicole Fleetwood:  Yeah, well first of all thank you, I'm still like it's been a couple of months I’m still like  “oh my goodness I can't believe this happened,” It's a deep honor and just it's so meaningful.  I have to say part of what was so meaningful about receiving this is many of the artists in Marking Time they put together this like little booklet of like art for me and just congratulating me. Then I got I mean like thousands of messages from like elementary school friends to other imprisoned people around internationally, it was just very, very powerful.  So I'm still absorbing all of the impact, and as I said the show is traveling, and so definitely the resources and support from the MacArthur will just help amplify and expand the tour of the exhibition, and we hope that it will tour for the next few years. There are a lot of venues that are interested in it and we're working out some of the logistics.  I mentioned that in the spring it's going to go to the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, and then next fall it's supposed to go to Brown University, and I'm working with a very small team, we're a very hands on, very small team, and we're also looking at how to just use the resources and the attention to just amplify support for the artists in the show because many of them are doing well but many of them are still struggling with some basic issues, like I'm working with one person right who's struggling with some very basic issues around housing because she has a felony conviction and a lot of places, they'll discriminate, and so there's a lot to be done that's behind the scenes, behind the glorious art on the wall to just keep growing the community and supporting people in terms of like creating the kind of communities and society we all want to inhabit where people are recognized, people are allowed access to some very basic things, and when people go wrong or do wrong that there's a way of repairing and transforming harm and bringing people back into community.

Jo Reed:  Well first of all many congratulations on the book, on the exhibit, many thanks for all the work you do and of course congratulations on the MacArthur.  Thank you and thank you for giving me your time.

Nicole Fleetwood:  Thank you, thank you very much for you interest and for the great questions.

That was Dr. Nicole Fleetwood—a 2021 MacArthur Fellow, she’s the curator of the traveling exhibition Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration and author of the book of the same name. You can find out more about both at markingtimeart.com. and you’ll find a link in the show notes. You’ve been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed—Stay safe and thanks for listening.


Professor, art historian, and curator Dr. Nicole Fleetwood has spent years exploring the art of incarcerated people and how it is essential to our understanding of mass incarceration and the people it affects. A 2021 MacArthur Fellow, Fleetwood began this work as she reflected on her family’s and community’s history of imprisonment. The project grew into an award-winning book Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration  and a traveling museum exhibition also titled “Marking Time.” Both the book and the exhibit look at the work of some 35 artists who are currently incarcerated, formerly incarcerated, or who’ve been affected by the prison system.  In this podcast, Fleetwood discusses the ingenuity involved in creating art within the constraints of the prison system, the bonds that can be forged among prisoners who are artists, the sheer talent and dedication these artists bring to their work, and the insights about imprisonment that the artwork frequently displays. Dr. Fleetwood is passionate, knowledgeable, and deeply appreciative of the spark of creativity that won’t be extinguished even under soul-crushing circumstances.

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