Grounded in the belief that art can promote dialogue and enable understanding, The San Quentin Project: Nigel Poor and the Men of San Quentin State Prіsоn uses narrative to examine the ways in which the public might perceive prіsоn populations.

Opening October 18, 2018, at the Milwaukee Art Museum, this exhibition suggests that engaging in storytelling can restore dignity. The exhibition debuts a series of visual documents made by artist Nigel Poor (American, b. 1963), in collaboration with men іncаrcеrаtеd at San Quentin State Prіsоn in Marin County, California, the oldest such institution in that state. The series includes nearly 30 mapping exercises, on which the men in Poor’s class wrote their responses to and narratives about photographic images.

“The San Quentin Project offers a unique opportunity to consider the role of art in sparking conversations that question assumptions and open dialogue,” said the curator of the exhibition, Lisa J. Sutcliffe, Herzfeld Curator of Photography and Media Arts, Milwaukee Art Museum. “This exhibition seeks to not only invite audiences to discover how images of іncаrcеrаtеd populations have been codified, but also promote more critical skills in reading the cultural signs and power structures inherent within visual images. It is exciting to consider how the Museum might act as a catalyst in conversations about criminal justice in Wisconsin.”

The Milwaukee Art Museum exhibition will feature a listening room with select episodes of Ear Hustle, a nationally recognized podcast created by Nigel Poor and Earlonne Woods inside San Quentin. Ear Hustle gives its thousands of worldwide listeners a greater understanding of the day-to-day lives of those within the institution.

“When I first started going into San Quentin, it was photography that gave me the opportunity to connect with the men inside,” said Poor. “This work became the catalyst for the creation of the podcast Ear Hustle that allows men to share their own stories in a more complex and nuanced way.”

Poor began the project in 2011 as a volunteer professor for the Prіsоn University Project, a nonprofit organization that provides higher education at San Quentin State Prіsоn. Poor first asked the contributors to react to photographs taken by artists, analyzing the images formally, as well as creatively, and exploring their meaning.

In 2012, Poor was introduced to an uncatalogued archive of thousands of 4-by-5-inch negatives made inside the prіsоn from the 1930s to the 1980s. This collection of negatives forms the basis of The San Quentin Archive Project, and was eventually incorporated into Poor’s classes. By seeing how the іncаrcеrаtеd men have mapped and interpreted the images made inside the prіsоn, Museum visitors can get a sense of the people who are responding to, refuting, and translating these pictures.

“I hope people will realize that the mapping of these images come from real people with real feelings,” said contributor Tommy Shakur Ross. “This project shows not only our observation skills at work, but our compassion and our driving need to be heard.”

In conjunction with the exhibition, the Haggerty Museum of Art at Marquette University and the Milwaukee Art Museum will host a three-day symposium, November 1 to 3. The event will bring artists and experts from around the country together with groups working in Milwaukee to discuss how arts and educational programming might shift perceptions and attitudes about the criminal justice system and іncаrcеrаtеd individuals.

“To know something I did is actually inside a museum is one of the greatest things in the world,” said contributor Mesro Coles-El. “Projects like this are important because so often people in prіsоn are just simply forgotten. This is in part because society looks the other way when it comes to prіsоns and іncаrcеrаtеd people. The other part is that hope is in short supply. That lack of hope causes those іncаrcеrаtеd to sit around and wait to die. An opportunity like this comes around once in a lifetime. It gives me hope.”

Nigel Poor is a San Francisco–based artist and professor of photography at Sacramento State University. She is also a co-creator of Ear Hustle. Poor holds a BA in photography and literature from Bennington College and an MFA in photography from the Massachusetts College of Art.

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Milwaukee Art Museum