More than 130 years after Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote The Brothers Karamazov, UO professor and UNESCO chair Steven Shankman explored the meaning of the Russian novelist’s text within the walls of Salem’s Oregon State Penitentiary. Shankman describes it as “one of the extraordinary moments in class,” or the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program, in which Shankman brought students from the UO to discuss literature and ethics with Salem inmates. One passage in particular left a lasting impression on the students:
“Remember especially that you cannot be the judge of anyone. For there can be no judge of a criminal on earth until the judge knows that he, too, is a criminal, exactly the same as the one who stands before him, and that he is perhaps most guilty of all for the crime of the one standing before him.”
After studying the quote, Shankman says one of the inmates, or “inside” students, told the class: “I can’t go along with what Dostoyevsky was saying because I’m responsible for the suffering brought to my victims.” Later in private, Shankman discussed the inmate’s own victimization with him, and how the student-inmate had endured years of physical abuse at the hands of his parents.
“I’m willing to grant the guy next to me a break,” the inmate said, tears streaming down his face. “But when it comes to me, I did it, I’m responsible.”
The Inside-Out Prison Exchange is part of a three-year UO and UNESCO initiative “Prisons and Peace” that culminates with “Prisons, Compassion, and Peace,” a citywide conference that begins this month and ends with the Pacific Northwest March premiere of Jake Heggie’s opera, Dead Man Walking, preceded by a meet-and-greet with Heggie and with author and restorative justice advocate Sister Helen Prejean, who wrote the book Dead Man Walking about her firsthand account of being a spiritual adviser to inmates on death row. The conference, which features over 20 events, is an unprecedented town- and-gown collaboration including the Eugene Opera, Sponsors, Inc., Downtown Initiative for the Visual Arts (DIVA) and the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art.
The sentiment from The Brothers Karamazov strikes at the heart of restorative justice. In a state whose prisons and jails are overflowing, many want an alternative to the current U.S. penal system, which focuses on the crime, the criminal and a punishment. Restorative justice focuses on the healing of victims, offenders and the community and their common agreement on how all parties can move forward in the aftermath of an offense. Beyond collaboration, this conference illustrates how the arts via exhibits like Visions from Within, featuring artwork from prisoners or former prisoners, The Last Supper, a painted study of death row inmates’ last meal requests, and the opera Dead Man Walking itself, can inform and heal a community more than criminal justice.
Visions from Within
Joey Hampton wraps his hands around a cup of coffee at Noisette Pastry Kitchen on a blustery winter morning. “I’ve been doing artwork for most of my life,” he says. Hampton was released from the Deer Ridge Correctional Institute on July 18 after spending two and a half years in prison for possessing and delivering heroin. Since his release, Hampton has been living at Sponsors’ Roosevelt Crossing transitional housing location. Sponsors provides re-entry and transitional services to people released from Lane County jails and prisons.
Hampton is participating in Sponsors’ Visions from Within exhibit that will show artwork by incarcerated or formerly incarcerated artists at DIVA, the Eugene Library and the Eugene Airport’s Gallery at the Airport. “It was a way to have this population be represented in our 40th, to have this demographic be there when they really can’t be there,” Sponsors Executive Assistant Trish DeJohn says, sitting next to Hampton. Visions from Within is also a celebration of Sponsors’ 40th anniversary this March. The only requirement for contributing artists was that their work expresses their experience in prison.
“If one person walks by a painting at any of the three galleries and has some sort of new awareness about Sponsors or a conversion in their heart … that this is not an ‘other,’ this is someone like me who appreciates something beautiful. That could do a lot to healing some of the wounds in our community,” DeJohn says. “These people who come back to Sponsors are coming home. It’s actually a law; they have to be released to the county where their crime happened. These people are not other, they are us!” DeJohn goes on to say these offenders have victims, but “they, too, were victimized.”
Hampton nods. He grew up in Eugene, off River Road in a “hippie” neighborhood where he was exposed to drugs and alcohol by age 11. His mother, who was addicted to diet pills, and his stepfather, who was an abusive alcoholic, raised Hampton. As a child, he witnessed his stepfather molest his sister and then his sister molested him. “After a while, when you’re told that you’re a piece of shit so many times, you start to believe it,” Hampton says. He turned to drugs to escape how he was feeling. And while drugs helped him escape the pain, art helped escape the prison of his own experience.
“Art can be a real positive outlet for me, especially dealing with my disease,” Hampton says. Hampton, 48, is a longtime survivor of HIV, diagnosed in 1998. “It’s a way for me to get away from everything, focus on something, and not have to worry about that for a little while” Hampton says he’s been in and out of prison his whole life, and sharpened his hyper-realist graphite drawing techniques while behind bars. “That’s why prison produces such amazing artists,” he says, “because you have all that time to hone your skills.”
“Art is one of the few things that people can engage in, in prison, that’s constructive,” Sponsors Executive Director Paul Solomon adds. He hopes the exhibit and conference will break down barriers between Eugene citizens and re-entry participants through the lens of art. “Re-entry is critical. Without support, it makes it difficult.”
Hampton, who can no longer work due to his health, is planning to take art classes at Lane Community College this fall. His objective with the exhibit is to give prisoners an identity and shake stereotypes. “Most people think that prison inmates are bad people. They’re thieves, liars, stealers — that’s just not true,” Hampton says. “There are a lot of good people who end up in prison and they made a mistake and they’re having to pay the price.”
The Last Supper
The concept of choosing your last meal, especially as an inmate on death row, is too disturbing for Oregon State University art professor Julie Green to wrap her brain around. Instead of trying to make sense of the ritual, Green decided to paint. And over the past 15 years, she has painted nearly 500 white porcelain plates with blue tempera illustrations. Reminiscent of Delft pottery, her painted pottery doesn’t feature windmills or idyllic provincial scenes; the dishes feature paintings of death row inmates’ final meal requests — from corn dogs and Coke to fish and ice cream cones.
‘Indiana 05 May 2007’ by Julie Green. From The Last Supper series
“Capital punishment is one of many concerns I have about our contemporary society,” she says. Green, a trained tempera painter, became familiar with last meal requests described in a local newspaper while living in Oklahoma, which at the time had the highest per capita rate of execution. “I read those final meals, they humanized death row. What we ask for in our final meal is a bit of a self-portrait or history. All of a sudden, these inmates that I never really thought much about became much more of individuals.”
The plates, when hung together as they will be at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art, give a quiet beauty and lasting permanence to something as ephemeral as a meal. Many of the delicate paintings show fast food burgers or paper soda cups, as many inmates are allotted only $20 for their last supper. Some are elaborate, like a final meal request in Ohio from 2009 that says “Final meal request of a well-done porter house steak with steak sauce, a baked potato with sour cream and bacon bits, salad with lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes, radishes, green peppers, carrots and French dressing, corn on the cob with butter, grapes, macaroni and cheese, dinner rolls and Cool Ranch Doritos with a jar of salsa, strawberry ice cream and strawberry cheesecake — both with real strawberries, a 2-liter of Dr. Pepper with ice and one tea bag” while others are more laconic, like a dish from a meal slated for Oct. 25, 2006, that states in lowercase blue type “request: eat from a vending machine with family members.” Several possess a more somber starkness, expressing “No final meal request.”
Green wants her art to be a visual and historical record, like the images of Matthew Brady, the famous American Civil War photographer, which many believe transformed perspectives on war and lead to the Emancipation Proclamation. “These images spoke more than writing could. Art in all forms has a huge potential for waking up our population.”
Although Green holds a firm anti-capital punishment stance, she wanted to create a neutral exhibit as to spark conversation on all sides of the debate. “I love the quote by Andy Warhol, ‘The artists of the future will just point,’” she says. “I feel that’s my role. I’m just pointing.” Green’s goal for the exhibit is to find a permanent home for the collection, ideally in a state with high rates of execution, and to continue painting 50 plates a year until, one day, she hopes, capital punishment is abolished in the U.S. “Why do we have this tradition for final meals? Fifteen years and I still wonder,” Green says.
Dead Man Walking
Upon hearing the music of the opera Dead Man Walking, based on Prejean’s experiences as a Catholic nun and spiritual adviser to inmates on death row, Shankman knew he had to bring the production to Eugene for the “Prisons, Compassion, and Peace” conference. In the summer of 2011, Shankman contacted Eugene Opera general director Mark Beudert with the idea, who agreed. The opera board, however, had its reservations. “They were concerned that Dead Man Walking would be propaganda,” Shankman says. But, he continues, “It’s not ideologically based. You feel all the pain of the victims’ families.”
“We knew it was going to be controversial,” Beudert says. “It’s a tough opera.” Shankman and Beudert, who both know Prejean personally, invited her to speak to the board. “It was important to her to let us know it was important to her,” Beudert says.
This was not the activist nun’s first journey to Oregon — Prejean has spent time in UO classrooms discussing restorative justice and also taught a creative writing workshop through Shankman’s Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program. Prejean, who is coming out with a prequel to Dead Man Walking in 2015 called River of Fire: My Spiritual Journey, visited the board in 2011 to convince them that this opera would not be one-sided. She told them that true art, rather than propaganda, illustrates both sides of a conflict and that has always been the goal with the Dead Man Walking book, film and opera. “The arts get underneath political belief. They go to the place of humanness where we’re all together as human beings,” Prejean tells EW. Prejean believes that the public is too removed from the criminal justice system. “Because they are so removed from it, we only have the arts — we have books to wake us up, film, music, opera. They are so removed from the suffering they drive by. They have no idea of the suffering of solitary confinement, mental illness, drugs. When you’re removed from people you tend to demean them.”
Prejean believes it’s the role of the arts to present the “fierce juxtaposition” of any conflict. “Everyone is worth more than the worst thing they did in their life,” she says, explaining that two-thirds of people are in prison for nonviolent crimes and 90 percent of people on death row were abused as children. “That is the heart of restorative justice. Other than art what do we have?”
Beudert, who will be teaching “Opera and Social Justice” at Notre Dame this spring, knew that the opera would have to walk a fine line in presenting all sides of a crime and its consequences. But he also says that opera as a medium has a long tradition of “holding up a mirror to society.” Beudert points to Verdi’s La Traviata as a commentary on sex workers in Paris during the 19th century.
The end of the first act of Dead Man Walking, which features world-renowned soprano Janis Kelly as Prejean, is “moving in a way that is dangerous,” Beudert says. Because, unlike operas like La Traviata that have over 150 years of distance, Dead Man Walking tackles contemporary issues without looking away, like execution and the power of forgiveness. “It’s tough to use the word healing. There are things that can never be healed,” Beudert says of the opera. “But they are part of life and undeniable … the artistry will move us in spite of ourselves.”
Shankman recalls another student, a UO student, who was moved by Dostoyevsky’s text. “In the classroom an ‘outside’ student got up and said, ‘I’m going with Dostoyevsky on this one.” The student went onto explain that when he was a senior in high school, he attended a professional baseball game with a friend. The friend got in an argument with another man in the parking lot, who then fatally attacked him. Shankman remembers the student saying, “I hated that guy for doing that to my friend ever since. I detest him.” The student continued, “Ever since I’ve been in this class, I’ve been reflecting on it. I’m trying to see my part in that. We had a real macho atmosphere in our high school, to fight. I was part of that. I’m responsible. I created that.”
Prisons, Compassion, and Peace
Visions from Within
Exhibit runs now through March 31 at Eugene Airport gallery, and Feb. 1 to March 31 at DIVA and the second floor of the Eugene Public Library. Opening reception 5:30 to 8 pm Friday, Feb. 1, at DIVA.
The Last Supper
Exhibit runs now through Feb. 16 at The Arts Center in Corvallis and March 1 to April 7 at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art. Artist’s talk with Julie Green 5:30 pm Wednesday, March 6, at the Schnitzer.
“Meet-and-greet” with Dead Man Walking composer Jake Heggie and author Sister Helen Prejean.
Discussion 5:30 to 6:30 pm Friday, March 15, at Studio One, the Hult Center; $25.
Dead Man Walking
Pacific Northwest premiere of the opera.
Dead Man Walking shows 7:30 pm Friday, March 15, and 2:30 pm Sunday, March 17, at the Hult Center; $20-$84.
For the full list of “Prisons, Compassion, and Peace” events and sponsors, visit eugeneopera.com, unesco.uoregon.edu, eugene-or.gov/library and sponsorsinc.org