Cellblock Visions: Prison Art in America
by Phyllis Kornfeld, with a foreword by Roger Cardinal, Princeton University Press, March 1997
From the Book Jacket:
Cellblock Visions, not only presents some of the most inventive and gripping examples of outsider art, but also offers an unprecedented account of prison art in particular as a subject worthy of serious consideration.Kornfeld is in a unique position to explain how art emerges in the most restrictive of environments and what gives inmate art its distinctive character. From painting to toilet-paper sculpture, the works of prisoners range from awkward attempts to amazing displays of virtuosity. Kornfeld presents the artists whose works offer freshness and surprise and tells the moving stories behind them.
Filled with quotes from men and women prisoners and with Kornfeld’s own anecdotes, Cellblock Visions shows how these artists, most of them having no previous training, turn to their work for a sense of self-worth, an opportunity to vent rage, or a way to find peace. We see how the artists deal with the cramped space, limited light, and narrow vistas of their prison studios, and how the security bans on many art supplies lead them to ingenious resourcefulness as in extracting color from shampoo and weaving with cigarette wrappers.
Kornfeld covers the traditional prison arts, such as soap carving and tattoo, and devotes a major section to painting, where we see miniatures depicting themes of alienation and escape, idyllic landscapes framed by bars, portraits of women living in a fantasy world, large canvasses filled with erotic and religious symbolism and violent action. The brief, vivid biographies of each artist portray that individual’s experience of crime, prison, and art itself. There is a growing movement to bring the best of prison art to the public’s attention for the dynamic immediacy of its form and for the power of its messages.This book is a contribution to that movement and a tribute to the humanity of the artists.
Adrienne Rich, Los Angeles Times Book Section "Why I Refused the National Medal for the Arts"
"Art is both tough and fragile. it speaks of what we long to hear and what we dread to find. It’s source and native impulse, the imagination, may be shackled in early life, yet may find release in conditions offering little else to the spirit. For a recent document on this, look at Phyllis Kornfeld’s "Cellblock Visions:Prison Art in America," notable for the variety and emotional depth of the artworks reproduced, the words of the inmate artists and for Kornfeld’s unsentimental and lucid text."
Fielding Dawson, American Book Review, May-June 1998
"What a terrific book! The forty-five artists whose work is reproduced here in vivid detail each tells their life story! here is this rare interaction of life and image that is unknown . It is art by "Them’. The outsiders. Bikers, killers, check forgers, robbers. Plus her descriptions of where they paint. Their materials. Their differing styles. Breathtaking. Suspensful. A dig-in, look-deep book ."
Kim Long, Bloomsbury Review
"In color and black-and-white reproductions, emotion, social commentary, and technical abilities combine to provide a powerful viewing experience."
Lee Adair Lawrence, The Washington Times
"Miss Kornfeld catalogs an astonishing range of subject matter and mediums. .
Throughout, one cannot help but marvel at the ingenuity of men and women who forge out of boredom, confinement, monotony and a chronic lack of supplies vivid expressions of rebellion, love, demonic fantasies and visions so unfiltered they make the surrealists look downright mannered."
John MacGregor, author of The Discovery of the Art of the Insane
"Phyllis Kornfeld has very extensive experience in the field of prison art. Her book makes that very apparent, providing the general reader with a powerful introduction to the role of art in prison life, and answering questions that the general reader will have about prisoners and their involvement with art and creativity. Her writing has a ring of truth about it, and she obviously writes, with real knowledge and liking, about the prisoners she has known. . . . Kornfeld has found astonishingly fine examples of important art being done in prisons, some of which falls into the area of Outsider Art, in which there is presently so much interest. The color reproductions make evident the high quality of the very rare and unusual material she has found."
112 pages, 42 color illus. 47 halftones 3 line illus.
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