Madison libraries feature artists, authors from Oakhill prison

Madison libraries feature artists, authors from Oakhill prison
“Past, Present, Future - Dreamer and the Dreamed” by Ryan B. is one of the works that will be on display at the March 3 exhibition.

Oakhill Correctional Institution, on the outskirts of the village of Oregon, prioritizes equipping inmates with the necessary skills to find their footing and positively contribute to their community upon their release. One of the ways Oakhill does this is through educational programming.

Soon the Madison community will be able to see the written, artistic, dramatic, and musical works of the men at Oakhill through the Artists in Absentia exhibition coming to The Bubbler’s Artist-in-Residence Program at the Madison Public Library Central Branch in March. The exhibition will showcase prose, poetry, dramatic scenes, paintings and original music from a wide range of genres.

Preview original music and hear Oakhill men reading their written work.

“I’m excited to be able to share their voice, their vision, their creative abilities with a wider audience,” Jose Vergara, a volunteer instructor at Oakhill, said. “I really wanted to get this writing and art out because a good chunk of it is really impressive. And I feel it should have a wider audience. Not simply because it’s made by inmates but because it deserves to be seen–it’s worthwhile art.”

Vergara is a Ph.D. student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison studying Slavic languages and literature. He started teaching courses at Oakhill COrrectional Institution in 2011 after receiving a grant from the UW-Madison Center for the Humanities.

In his first course, Vergara focused on prominent Russian authors. The men in his class were also encouraged to bring in their own creative writing pieces after discussing themes and techniques from the assigned reading.

“We’ll talk about perspective and in the creative response they come up with, you see that they’ve not simply understood and are now aping what an author did; but they take it and make it their own as well,” Vergara said.

In addition, the Oakhill Prison Humanities Project offers a range of courses throughout the year including art, drama, history and philosophy. The project’s instructional staff is comprised of mostly UW graduate students and a few faculty instructors. They plan to offer an accounting course in the future to give the men more practical skills for returning to the real world.

Sharing the inmates’ voices was his main goal for the project, Vergara said.

Although the artists cannot attend the exhibition’s debut on March 3, the instructors at Oakhill wanted to make sure the community was able to feel their presence. The exhibition will feature digital recordings of the men reading their creative writing pieces and performing their original music.

“We’re playing with the idea that they’re absent but they’re not, and we’re trying to bring in the artists in different ways as best we can,” he said.

In a society wrought with negative and cliche images of prisons depicted in Hollywood and on television, another goal of the project is to humanize the men.

Vergara said he has “no delusions about what the exhibition will do,” but hopes that it can encourage broader conversations about the prison system.

“We hear the voices of these men in their writing and see their talents as creative human beings that are interested in sharing their experiences in a constructive way,” he said.