Each of the faces of six children is distinct and unique. But each of them stands for something, too. Each of them is wearing a heartbreaking expression, the kind no parent ever wants to see on a child’s face.
Only one is being consoled. It’s unclear that it’s helping.
“I concentrated on the eyes,” artist Deborah McDuff said of “Children Looking Inside and Outside Prison Walls,” one in a collection of deeply emotional pieces in a show called Impact on Innocence: Mass Incarceration, up at ConnCAT in Science Park on Winchester Avenue now until April 10.
“Impact on Innocence,” which opened on Friday evening with a chance to meet and speak with McDuff, is art with a mission. It looks at the damage done by mass incarceration by focusing on the families — especially the children — left behind when someone goes to prison, and the toll taken on their lives for years and years.
“Children don’t choose their parents,” McDuff said. “Why should they have to serve two life sentences?”
McDuff’s inspiration for Impact on Innocence came from meeting a young man years ago whose father was in prison. He didn’t know his mother. Between 15 and 22 months into a sentence, McDuff learned, imprisoned parents can lose parental rights to their children. The young man she met had been raised by the state, and lived in 48 different homes by the time he was 20.
“How can that happen and nobody knows?” McDuff recalled thinking. She listened to other people and heard their stories. She herself knew people who were incarcerated. “In the black community, everybody knows somebody,” she said.
The idea of a body of work to call attention to the hardships of the families of prisoners took shape in her mind. McDuff is more of a sculptor than a painter, and settled on charcoal because it’s “very sculptural.” The medium allowed her to put on and take off charcoal, building the images layer by layer — a mirror of the layers of emotions of her subjects.
“Whatever material I can use to communicate the message, that’s what I use,” she said. Likewise, while she worked from photographs, she found herself departing from them, changing the faces. “The message was to show different populations instead of a single individual, so it had to be distorted to include others.”
McDuff and her husband Selassie WIlliams are now based in Southern California. (Williams is retired.) She began creating the pieces in 2014, quickly adjusting to the larger-than-life scale that makes them so effective.
“I used eight cans of fixative on one piece,” McDuff said — fixative being the spray needed to render the charcoal immobile on the paper. Otherwise, it will come off on the hand as if the artist is still working on it.
Hitting the road with the collection took shape partially by serendipity. She had finished the first few pieces when she found herself talking to a couple in a movie theater in Cambridge, Mass., just before a screening of I Am Not Your Negro, the acclaimed documentary about James Baldwin. The couple asked to see her work.
“The next thing I know, I’m getting an invitation for UMass-Amherst” to exhibit the pieces there, McDuff said. That show happened in February. Before it opened, she sent images of the work to Carlton Highsmith at ConnCAT to see if he might be interested in exhibiting the works in New Haven.
“It’s right in line with what we’re doing here,” McDuff recalled Highsmith saying. She created the rest of the pieces and knew she was done when she also built the record player at the end of the exhibit. It’s an embodiment of the way the same things keep happening again and again — people being put away for years, families wrecked — while the license plates on the outside show just how many people have been incarcerated, by state, since 2013. Many of those numbers are in the tens of thousands. Some are in the hundreds of thousands.
McDuff knew Highsmith — and ConnCAT — because she and her husband had moved to New Haven in 2005 for Williams to take a provost position at Southern Connecticut State University. In the six years that Williams and McDuff lived in town, Highsmith said, McDuff “immersed herself in the community” and ended up taking part in the work of founding ConnCAT in Science Park.
“My thing is social justice,” McDuff explained, in both life and art. “If I can tell the stories of people who are not heard and not seen, not for me to be the judge, but to make people aware. I wanted to shed light on the devastation that is shared by many.”
As a way a take action, McDuff focused on companies using prisoners’ labor to make everything from weapons to underwear. McDuff pointed out that the companies are reaping extra profits from the dirt-cheap cost of labor. “Why can’t we take some of that money and set it aside for the children?” she asked. As she reiterated, they didn’t choose their parents. Why should they also be punished?
Attendees to Friday’s opening agreed. To a person, they were moved by the direct emotional effects of McDuff’s work.
“The children looking inward and outward at the same time — that was hard to look at,” said an attendee. “More people should see it.”
Impact on Innocence: Mass Incarceration runs at ConnCAT, 4 Science Park on Winchester Avenue, through April 10. ConnCAT is open to the public during business hours; just enter by the front door and say that you’re there to visit the exhibit and you’ll be directed upstairs. Admission is free.