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A Philadelphia art exhibit goes ‘Beyond the Wall’

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STORY WRITTEN BY TARA LYNN JOHNSON/For Digital First Media

A conversation is happening about the prison system through the “Beyond the Wall” project by Philadelphia’s Mural Arts Program. Viewers can join the dialogue through Feb.  28 at a mini-mural exhibit at the Philadelphia Art Alliance.

The exhibit, part of the multi-faceted project, features a series of works by muralist Eric Okdeh. They are portraits inspired by interviews with inmates, the formerly incarcerated, attorneys, criminal justice professionals, academics, advocates, victims’ groups, and community members – a wide range of opinions and viewpoints from all sides of the issue.

Robyn Buseman, Mural Arts’ Restorative Justice director, appreciates the diversity of the represented voices and the opportunity for thoughtful discussion that the project offers.

“It’s a very complicated subject,” she said. “People say ‘let’s get tough on crime,’ but there are all these people in prison and it’s not doing anything to help the people who commit the crimes, the victims, or the neighborhoods where the offenders come from.”

She’s impressed with Okdeh’s work.

“Eric is amazing. His work is beautiful,” she said. “All of our subjects are intense and he’s able to capture that.”

Buseman thinks art is a great way to get people to talk about issues. “People look at art to appreciate it, but also you can use art for social justice issues,” she said. “Art is a really powerful tool, and this is a hidden subject.”

It’s one Okdeh wants to bring it into the light. He teaches art to inmates at Graterford Prison, mostly lifers. They helped Okdeh compile the list of people he would interview for the project and they supplied some of the questions he asked. They also helped to make each piece.

“We all painted the body of work together,” he said. “I dished out the designs and everybody got a chance to build something up on their own.”

The mini-murals – three-foot by five-foot panels mounted on aluminum – feature words and phrases from each interview (expanded versions available at beyondthewall.muralarts.org). The attempt was to capture “the spirit of the interview. Something the person focused on is what the piece focused on,” he said. “The interviews give more background to the person.”

Eric Okdeh is shown. Photo by  Michael Reali.

Muralist Eric Okdeh is shown.
Photo by Michael Reali.

Each mural has an edition number and a hashtag (#beyondthewallproject) so people can join the discussion online through social media. And after being displayed at the Philadelphia Art Alliance, the murals will be seen in other upcoming exhibits. The hope is to put some on houses and buildings, like other works through the Mural Arts Program.

“We’d like to talk about this and get viewpoints out there,” Okdeh said. “Hopefully, we’ll be able to put them across the city and really incite some thought-provoking conversation.”

Okdeh said there’s an importance and weight to art, especially public works like this. And he hopes people will share their opinions, even if they differ. Okdeh appreciates discussion and he especially likes that this project lets the inmates express themselves and use their talents.

“A lot of these artists are self-taught. Some have had no experience,” Okdeh said. “The majority are guys who found out they love art while they were in prison, unfortunately. The challenge is to see where people’s strengths lie and to make them feel like they’ve contributed.”

 IF YOU GO

What:  “Beyond the Wall” mini-mural exhibit

When:  11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tue.-Fri.; noon to 5 p.m. Sat.-Sun. through March 15.

Where:  Philadelphia Art Alliance (PAA), 251 South 18th Street, Philadelphia.

Admission:  $5; seniors and students $3.

Info.:  For PAA information, call (215) 545-4302.

To see the murals and read the interviews, visit beyondthewall.muralarts.org.

To learn more about the entire project, visit www.muralarts.org/collections/projects/beyond-wall

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