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Dennis Sobin is no stranger to the concept of suffering for one’s art. In 1991, he was arrested in Florida for filming naked children frolicking at a nudist resort. Sobin claimed the footage was for use in a documentary; a court viewed his work as pornography and gave the combative defendant over five years in state prison. Now free, Sobin is gathering other incarcerated artists in his stand against the Man.
Sobin, 63, is the director of the Prisons Foundation, which was officially incorporated after his January 2003 release from the Federal Correctional Institution in Petersburg, Va., where he was serving an additional five years for bankruptcy fraud-related charges. “The foundation,” he says, “promotes the arts and education in prison and alternatives to incarceration”—which includes publishing resource guides for inmates and inmates’ families, hosting events to increase public awareness about prisoner issues such as mandatory sentencing minimums, and responding to letters from prisoners. The Prisons Gallery of Art, which opened in early October, is the foundation’s latest project.
“The idea of the gallery was to have a showcase for the art as well as a way to raise funds for our organization,” Sobin says. Money from sales goes back to the artists when allowed by their facility, he says, and some profits also go to justice-advocacy groups.
“We’re looking for any avenues that would open up the eyes of the public to the fact that people are being over-incarcerated in this country, too long and often for the wrong reasons,” Sobin says. “The public, I believe, sees…perhaps the need to judge them anew or to give them another chance; prisoners see a way out of prison before their release.”
The gallery shares a suite with the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). The organization has devoted one room entirely to the prisoners’ artwork; elsewhere in the office, canvases carefully sit on leather couches, against bookshelves and walls, and in the kitchen. On one afternoon, a large painting of RuPaul sits directly across from the entrance, leaning against a tall shelf filled with fat binders labeled “High Times.”
“They were looking to share their space,” Sobin says of NORML. “We really jumped at it because we were looking for a progressive, established nonprofit.” The foundation keeps about 500 works at the gallery itself, he says; about as many sit in storage at First Trinity Lutheran Church, at 4th and E Streets NW. During a special exhibition in December, the full collection will be on view at the church.
The artwork at the gallery and in storage—including portraits, abstracts, watercolors, and cartoons—is by prisoners from across the country, with inmates having more or less access to materials depending on the state in which they’re incarcerated. In Maryland, Sobin says, inmates are allowed to order supplies from a catalog. Texas has a “craft shop program” that prisoners can enter if they have good disciplinary records and $50 in their inmate accounts. D.C. Jail, however, is “very restrictive,” he says. “Inmates can’t get anything.”
During his own stint in prison, Sobin learned how to read music as well as write and record his own songs. “I got good because I had all that time. It was like having a government grant,” he says. Taking advantage of the abundance of free time in prison to grow artistically is one of the foundation’s goals for current inmates. “Some people don’t do anything,” Sobin says. “I had a roommate who was determined to sleep through his sentence. He slept about 14 hours every day.”
Sobin’s efforts with the foundation, and that of the artists, is starting to pay off. He estimates that 50 to 60 people visit the mini-gallery each week. On one afternoon, a man who says he’s served as a public defender purchases two pieces; less than an hour later, a retired woman, Audrey Aiken, purchases a medium-sized painting for $120. “The [other] galleries are just outrageously expensive,” Aiken, a Brookland resident, says. “It’ll probably cost more to have it matted and framed.”
Aiken says she also enjoys reading the messages each artist writes on a slip of paper that is then attached to the back of the canvas. “In all candor,” reads one note by artist Frederick Benjamin Thompson, who is serving a life sentence in New Jersey, “I would not work in ball point if I were free, [preferring] oils, acrylic, and pastel on linen canvas.”