A prison art exhibit at the state Capitol captures the transformative power of creativity behind bars

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Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
A blur of Colorado State Capitol visitors moves past part of an exhibit by the Prison Art Experience and Colorado Creative Industries, featuring works by current and/or formerly incarcerated people, April 17, 2024.

At this time of year, Colorado’s Capitol is no quiet hall of governance; the building echoes all day long with conversations, tours, protests, debates, and press conferences. 

Standing amidst all the buzz at the opening reception for the building’s latest art exhibition, Robert Zeigler didn’t notice the clatter; he was hearing his own heart. 

“This is day 59 of being free. That's how I look at it. It's been a struggle," Zeigler explained. 

Zeigler is one of the artists’ whose work make up "Creating Community in Confinement," an exhibit of paintings, drawings and multimedia works by current and former prison inmates in Colorado. He has three pieces in this show, portraits of Jimi Hendrix and of two important women in his life.

For him, art was a source of solace and purpose while serving his sentence at correctional facilities in Limon and Fremont County. He was part of an informal community that grew up around their shared passion.  

"We would all go down there after work and we'd draw and people would say, ‘oh, there's Artist Row.’ So it's like everybody just knew, they're going to come down here and draw. Let them have that little area right there," he recalled.

The nickname ‘Artists Row' was a compliment Zeigler said, because the other inmates knew,  “Hey, leave 'em alone. Let them do their thing." And when people would come over, they would spark conversation… Conversations between people who normally didn't like each other.”

Eden Lane/CPR News
Robert Zeigler stands in front of some his artwork in the "Creating Community in Confinement" exhibit at the Colorado state capitol, April 12, 2024.
Eden Lane/CPR News
Robert Zeigler stands in front of some his artwork in the "Creating Community in Confinement" exhibit at the Colorado state capitol, April 11, 2024.

The unlikely creative community Zeigler found inside also struck a chord with Roohallah Mobarez, who co-curated the exhibition after his own transformative experience creating art behind bars.

“I was in prison and art is what saved my life,” said Mobarez. “It was my hustle. It kept me out of the mix. And more than anything, it helped create community for me."

Mobarez began drawing at seven years old, but it wasn't until he was incarcerated that he began to fully value his artistic skills. 

“I used to doodle a lot,” he said.  “One of the artists seen me at the table and he's like, ‘what are you doing?’ I was like, ‘oh, I'm just drawing.’ He's like, ‘well, that's pretty dope. Let me show you some of the things that I do.’"

Having their works on display at the Capitol, under the eyes of policymakers and the visiting public, is a major opportunity for these current and formerly incarcerated artists. And an opportunity for those who believe in the transformative potential of prison arts programming.

“If we're really wanting rehabilitation, (if) we're really wanting people who are put into state facilities to change or to become better and reintegrate into society and be citizens that we would enjoy having as our neighbors, we need to make sure that everyone has access to the tools they need to be better,” said co-creator Lilly Stannard, who teaches art in prisons through the University of Denver’s Prison Arts Initiative.

Eden Lane/CPR News
Co-curator Roohallah Mobarez talks to a visitor at the opening reception of the "Creating Community in Confinement" exhibit at the Colorado state capitol, April 12, 2024.

The Capitol exhibition is co-produced by two organizations — Prison Art Experience, which is run by Mobarez, and a new nonprofit called Impact Arts. Art instructor Sarah McKenzie helped launch the volunteer group as an umbrella organization to support artists in the justice system and put on projects around mass incarceration.

McKenzie noted that while the prison system is designed to do a lot of things, “hopefully one of the things it's doing is helping people who will be coming back into society... Hopefully it is helping those people to feel a sense of purpose and pride and have an understanding of themselves as a person who can succeed.”

For his part, Mobarez has too often seen the idea of rehabilitation through art and other prison programming dismissed as an undeserved "reward" for lawbreakers. 

“I would challenge people's perspective of what the criminal legal system is,” said Mobarez. “because it's very retributive. Hearing people say that, ‘well, they're supposed to go to prison and it's punishment’ ... If we don't show them that they're able and deserving of rehabilitation, we cannot expect them to believe that themselves.”

Eden Lane/CPR News
Artworks on display for the "Creating Community in Confinement" exhibit at the state capitol, April 12, 2024. The show's co-curators said they hope views will consider the rehabilitative power of creating art behind bars.

The crowd at the show opening included loved ones of some still-incarcerated artists. Dana and Harrison Williams were excited to see their son’s works hanging in the state Capitol, even as he continues to serve his sentence.

Dana Williams said they knew their son was an artist, but it’s powerful to see him “ be able to share it with others and to also allow him the experience of giving back through his art.” 

“Being confined within the walls where he is doesn't mean that he's confined within his heart, his mind, his artistry,” continued Williams. “It allows him to continue creating and to really think about the positivity and all of the different things that he can do once he gets out.”

Harrison Williams added, “Second, chances are great and everyone deserves one. So I want to say that to the artists, if they're listening by chance — great work. And I wish that in the future that things will go well for you.” 

State Capitol as art gallery

The “Creating Community in Confinement” is just one of many art exhibits that go up around the capitol each year, showcasing artists ranging from talented students to accomplished professionals

Hanging works in the historic building isn’t easy. Art handler Bruce Marsden, who’s installed numerous shows in the Capitol's offices and rotunda, had to develop a special system to avoid damaging the walls. Marsden believes displaying art in a public space like the Capitol carries a different impact than in a gallery or museum, and he said that the current show touched him. 

“Just seeing the talent and then the situation and what the artists were thinking, what they were visualizing, and when you realize that they're incarcerated and what their art is depicting,” said Marsden, noting that many of the artists chose to capture things they’re missing on the inside: “outdoor landscape, animals.. And a lot of it is the people they've missed, the family, the wives, girlfriends, that sort of thing.”

Marsden added that as soon as the art went up, he started hearing from capitol staff how much they love having it up.

The show is in both public spaces in the Capitol, like the basement rotunda where visiting school children often eat their lunches and lobbyists pass through on their way to House hearings rooms, and more private spaces, like the offices of the governor and lieutenant governor.

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Part of an exhibit by the Prison Art Experience and Colorado Creative Industries, featuring works by current and/or formerly incarcerated people, April 17, 2024.

CPR News state capitol reporter Bente Birkeland noted the building’s rotating art exhibitions  chosen and displayed with intention, and that having works hung in the governer’s office gives them a place of prominence, even if fewer people may see them. 

“People come into the governor's office and they will comment on the artwork and they notice it,” said Birkeland. “I think it's a way to showcase something, even if everyone in the public isn't in that meeting… (the governor) still holds media availabilities and meets with other people, important people, and you're very aware of what's on the wall in his office.”

The exhibition Creating Community Through Confinement is part of Creative Capitol, a program that showcases rotating art exhibitions by Colorado artists. it will be on view in the Capitol Rotunda, as well as the Governor and Lieutenant Governor’s offices through June.