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Artists to turn sculpture sale into art fellowship for former inmates

The Smithsonian bought the mirrored coffin, created by local artists as part of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Lawrence Bryant |St. Louis American
The Smithsonian has bought the mirrored coffin, created by local artists as part of the Black Lives Matter movement.

A new initiative will pay former prisoners to make art. The project stems from the Mirror Casket, art produced during Ferguson related protests. According to one artist, there’s a direct relationship between issues of police brutality and mass incarceration.

“Whether your life is taken by a bullet or is taken by a prison cell, that life, that potential, is still taken away from this person,” said De Andrea Nichols.

Last year, Nichols and fellow artists, Damon Davis, Mallory Nezam, Elizabeth Vega, Marcis Curtis, Sophie Lipman and Derek Laney produced the Mirror Casket as part of the group Artivists STL. The sculpture was developed for use at Ferguson-related protests held in response to the shooting death of Michael Brown in August 2014. The sculpture appeared at protests throughout the subsequent year. For Nichols, Brown’s death connects to a range of social justice issues that come from systemic racism.

“I don’t think that we can address police brutality without also addressing racial profiling, without also addressing the fact that a huge percentage, an unbalanced percentage of black males are incarcerated,” said Nichols. 

The sculpture came to the attention of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture while collecting other works produced in relation to the Black Lives Matter movement. After 10 months of negotiation, the national institution bought Mirror Casket for thousands of dollars. Nezam says the sale of the work lets the artists maintain autonomy over the project.

“We don’t have to ask for permission, we can just say ‘we believe in this and we don’t need to see if a funder believes in it.’ We have this surplus we can put back into the movement,” said Nezam.

The artists will use a portion of those funds to set up a 12-week-long artist fellowship and workshop for formerly incarcerated individuals. Another portion of the funds will contribute to art projects for future protests, direct actions, and marches. The initiative will be broken up into different modules that address: making art for themselves, making art to raise awareness about issues, making art that acts as public disruption, and making art as a catalyst for change. The artists hope to engage 5-10 people. Participants will be paid $100 a week. 

“We want to model what we want the world to look like, so if we’re asking you to participate not just as someone who’s learning but as a contributing person to this notion, we need to respect your time,” said Nichols.

The desire to incorporate formerly incarcerated individuals came from some of the artists' own experiences spending time in jail as the result of protest actions. 

Nichols attributes their partnership with TheGriot Museum of Black History to Elizabeth Vega, who approached the museum’s director, Lois Connelly, about holding the workshops at Connelly’s museum. The artists hope to launch the project this summer or fall with support from additional funding raised in the interim.