Currently on display in Larmarche Gallery is an exhibit both by and about six incarcerated men at the Maine Coastal Regional Reentry Center, a minimum security facility in Belfast. Curator Charlotte Borden ’19 wanted to bring the men’s voices directly into the exhibit by displaying their art and her portraits of them.
“My intention with the opening is to … bring a humanized conception of my students as much as I can through these objects,” said Borden, who also spent six weeks teaching drawing and painting classes. “I also want to encourage people to not disregard incarcerated people as people who’ve just made mistakes and aren’t deserving.”
For each of her subjects, Borden painted one portrait and one painting that could represent them in any way. The works range from figurative to abstract, and she tried to include aspects of their personalities and background, either explicitly or implicitly. She listened to their music requests as she worked and discussed the paintings with them directly. One of the men asked to be pictured in an oyster reef; another wanted to be represented as an educator.
Borden tried not to make many changes to the paintings after she finished her work, as she wanted to preserve her impressions and ideas from the summer.
The exhibit will also feature some of the drawings, paintings and photographs that the men made during Borden’s class, along with an audio component. Towards the end of the class Borden recorded the men’s answers to a few questions: What was your life like before you were incarcerated? What’s important to you? What do you want people with influence to know about you or your incarceration experience?
“The idea was to bring their voices in and include those more explicit autobiographical things that you might not get from just a painting, so you’re going to be able to listen to that while you look at their portraits,” said Borden.
Borden is a visual arts and government major, and is especially interested in issues related to criminal justice and incarceration.
“The summer before I worked at a nonprofit that was criminal justice-related and this summer I wanted to have hands-on experience interacting with the people who I’m thinking so much about,” said Borden, adding that she wanted to get past the idea that these men are incarcerated and get to know them as individuals.
For Borden, art is a way to release and grapple with her emotions. She wanted to share this personal capacity of art with the men she taught.
Borden hopes that through the show—made possible by the Thomas A. McKinley ’06 and Hannah Weil McKinley ’08 Summer Fellowship awarded by Career Planning through the Funded Internship Program—she can promote awareness and empathy regarding the experiences of incarcerated people.
In addition to teaching art classes, she got to know the men better through other activities at the center, such as softball. Borden said she felt that she became good friends with them over the six weeks, and often identified with the men much more than the facility’s administration.
Currently, Borden teaches a video class every Tuesday at the center. She said that in the future she is interested in working with people in a different phase of incarceration, who don’t have the hope of leaving as soon. She thinks some of the most pressing criminal justice issues stem from these longer sentences.
Borden also works with College Guild, which provides educational opportunities for incarcerated people around the country. She is co-leader of the Bowdoin chapter of the club, and helps train volunteers and bring criminal justice-related talks to campus.
Correction, November 12, 2017: An earlier version of the article incorrectly named the grant that Borden received.