Joshua Gresl was eating lunch in the Milwaukee County Jail when he noticed something funny about his milk carton. The inmate saw a smiley face – the “open here” line stretched up like a wide mouth, the little pink labels above it positioned as eyes. He started to twist and tear at the carton, flattening it and ripping around the edges to make dangling arms and legs. “I made a little creature,” Gresl says.
In the days that followed, Gresl started making more. Soon he had dozens, and then hundreds. Over several non-consecutive sentences on drug charges, most recently 21 months at Chippewa Valley Correctional Facility, the only way he could save his artwork from confiscation was by mailing it to his father, Gary Gresl. In 2021, Gary submitted Joshua’s work to Debra Brehmer, the owner and director of the Portrait Society Gallery in the Third Ward, who was soliciting artwork from incarcerated people for a new exhibition. “That was a really positive thing for me, to know that what I was doing was going to be included in a show,” Gresl says.
Now, Gresl is one of roughly 60 incarcerated or formerly incarcerated artists featured in “Art Against the Odds,” which opens at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design on Jan. 19. The exhibition, the first of its size in Wisconsin history, is the culmination of over two years of effort by Brehmer and Portrait Society’s gallery manager and registrar, Paul Salsieder, who co-curated it. It will display hundreds of pieces of art – paintings, graphite drawings, sculptures, knitting and more. “We wanted to really honor and elevate the work of incarcerated artists, like we would any museum-level work,” says Brehmer.
She and Salsieder got the word out in 2020 through a newsletter distributed in prisons called The Community, founded by former inmate Shannon Ross. He’s not an artist himself, but Ross, who was released from prison in 2020, took on a consulting role with the exhibition, working with Brehmer and Salsieder to develop the purpose and message of the exhibition.
“Because the prison system is a closed world, it’s very easy not to care about it, or see it,” Brehmer says. “The show is really about seeing and treating incarcerated people as human beings. … They have every right to make art. It’s healing. It’s intellectual. And it’s a way to find a sense of self that is outside the terms of a criminal record.”
MANY OF THE ARTISTS featured in “Art Against the Odds” are facing long or life sentences for murder, sexual assault or other violent crimes. Brehmer decided against including any information about the artists’ offenses in the exhibition materials. “Investigating the crime felt like it’s not part of the narrative of this show,” Brehmer says. “The narrative of this show is about how [the artists] are surviving in prison and that they’re becoming more than their crime.”
Ross especially wanted to avoid the possibility of the show turning voyeuristic.
“The struggle that [we’ve] had is how do we tie in something beyond just, ‘Ooh, pretty stuff by evil people?’” Ross says. “I think what [the exhibition] is a commentary on is that we have these people in prison – and oftentimes these artists have done something terrible – but there is a potential and a humanity and there’s a vulnerability that you’re seeing. That exposes you to the idea that this concept of ‘evil people’ is really immature and naive. The hope is that through art you can have people connecting with an individual on a human level and admiring their creations and their soul. … That’s a connection we really need people in society to have so they can see this issue differently.”
Brehmer and Ross both anticipated the possibility of offending crime victims through the show. By elevating their artwork, the show has the potential to be triggering both for the victims of the people whose work is shown and other survivors of crimes. They both point to the fact that 95% of incarcerated people will be released at some point. “They don’t want to come back out and reoffend, but what do we do in prisons to make sure they’re prepared to come back out?” Brehmer says. Art programs, she says, can help in that regard.
Claude Motley, a Milwaukeean who was shot in the face during a carjacking in 2014, will speak at a panel during the show from the perspective of a survivor of crime. “To speak for myself, I don’t think [the show] is elevating the prisoners or rejoicing in their crime or wrongdoing,” Motley says. “But it is an attempt to try to see another side, to try to see reconciliation, to try to see a person wanting to become better. Even as victims, in my personal journey, we have to think about where we stop the punishment and start going toward forgiveness. For some people, it’s very hard to ever get to that point, and I could never tell someone who’s gone through something very traumatic at the hands of another what they should feel about it.
“But as a community, we have to look at it as a whole basis of, how do we heal? How do we try to move forward? I think showcasing art from people who have committed crime can be one of the processes that can help those who are hopefully on their way to re-entering society and becoming productive.”
But Motley believes that it’s crucial that the show incorporate victims’ perspectives and voices. He notes that a great deal of victims’ pain when faced with something like this comes from feeling voiceless or ignored. Brehmer is attempting to incorporate those perspectives through private guided tours. She is inviting victim advocacy groups and police and corrections officers to see the show and discuss their response to it. “We want to walk through the show and hear their response and have them educate us, too,” she says.
NATE LINDELL FIRST started making art in solitary confinement. He had a mirror in his otherwise barren cell and spent the hours sketching his own face. He was only allowed a rubber pencil, as many prisoners in solitary self-harm.
“I learned that I had a highly distorted view of myself, as my initial self-portraits looked dark, like I was a character out of a horror movie,” says Lindell, who’s serving a life prison sentence for a 1996 murder and arson. He spent hours every day trying to master each feature on his face until he could produce something that matched the image on his prison ID. “What drawing did for me was allow me to try to express my humanity.”
With few materials to work with, many inmates featured in the show made creative use of found objects. Lindell used pink and blue dyes made from dissolved antacid tablets to color his drawings. Another used torn wrappers from candy bars and other junk food pasted on paper to craft his portraits of other inmates. Some of the sculptures use rolled-up paper, rocks from the prison yard or discarded cake boxes, among other materials. Inmates in lower-security holding had access to paint and other supplies, ordered from an official catalog.
And all incarcerated artists face the possibility of their unauthorized pieces – or pieces that use state property, like the backs of official forms or even Gresl’s milk cartons – being confiscated and destroyed if found during room searches. One artist in the show transposed his poetry across a roughly 3-foot-wide canvas, made of multiple pieces of paper glued together with toothpaste. Since the prison did not allow prisoners to keep artwork larger than 9-by-12 inches, he would have to take the piece apart and roll each paper up, sending them out in the mail individually to be reassembled on the outside. Brehmer framed those pieces, which will now be on display at the exhibition. “One of the surprising things for us has been how many people are making art in prison,” Brehmer says. “It’s a life-saving tool for many of them.”
After showing at MIAD through March 11, “Art Against the Odds” will travel Wisconsin, stopping at the Neville Public Museum in Green Bay and the NewARTSpace in De Pere from March 16-May 19, and the Rahr-West Art Museum in Manitowoc from June 4-Aug. 6.
If any of the pieces are sold, each artist has a contract with Portrait Society based on the conditions of their sentence – a portion of the proceeds can go to some of the artists, some can have proceeds sent to their families, and some cannot have their art sold. Brehmer says a portion of each sale would go to the Portrait Society Gallery’s nonprofit as well.
“I think what [the show] speaks to is the fact that those incarcerated remain human, and all humans have a deep-seated desire to create and express,” says Jeffrey Morin, MIAD’s president. “We wanted to provide a professional space, a safe space, to house the conversations that will happen related to this exhibition.”
In September, Gresl was released from prison at the completion of his sentence and moved back to Milwaukee. During Gallery Night in October, he visited Brehmer at Portrait Society Gallery and saw his work in storage, ready to be displayed in January. “She showed me stuff that would have been thrown away if it’d been seen by a guard, and now it’s framed,” he says. “I hope when people come, they see that even though some people have got in trouble and gone into prison, there’s still a lot of good and a lot of creativity about us.”