Minn. CO's 'Art From the Inside' initiative blossoms with new exhibit
Some 40 prison inmates have contributed 60 original art pieces, mostly drawings and paintings, all of which are on display this month
By Frederick Melo
ST. PAUL, Minn. — During the economic downturn that followed the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Antonio Espinosa followed a job offer that led him from his home in New York's street-tough South Bronx neighborhoods to a lengthy career at the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Stillwater. Minnesota, he was told, would be a nicer place.
Reality hasn't always matched the rhetoric. During his 19 years as a state corrections officer, he's seen his share of violence, including the murder of his longtime friend Joseph Gomm, who had been a corrections officer nearly as long.
An inmate killed Gomm, 45, in 2018 with a state-issue hammer from the prison's metalworking shop, plunging the facility into a month-long lockdown. Men barely left their cells.
"That was my buddy," Espinosa said. "I worked with him for 16 years."
Morale on both sides of the cell doors plummeted. Several corrections officers took leaves or resigned. Prison work for inmates and other opportunities became scarce.
And then the novel coronavirus hit, racing through guards and inmates alike and requiring prisoners to be kept apart in isolation. Espinosa recovered from his own bout with COVID-19 a few weeks ago.
"This place is suffering and needs healing," Espinosa said on Tuesday, after stepping outside the prison walls to remove his mask and take a welcome breath of fresh air.
Rather than retreat from the men around him, Espinosa has taken a cue from his Christian faith and chosen to engage. Since his friend's death in 2018, he's encouraged inmates to channel the long hours spent in their cells into creating artwork.
His "Art from the Inside" initiative blossomed, thanks to a grant last year from Minneapolis-based Midway Contemporary Art, which was backed financially by The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts in New York.
Espinosa has been able to buy art supplies, hire a photographer and videographer to document his initiative and recently launch a website, artfromtheinsidemn.org. Some 40 prison inmates have contributed 60 original art pieces, mostly drawings and paintings, all of which are on display this month at the Creators Space/Creators Cup Coffee House in Lowertown St. Paul.
"This project has meant everything to me, and it means a lot to these guys too," he said. "It gives them a lot of hope."
The wide-ranging exhibit — "Numbers" — takes its name from the Offender Identification Number that inmates are issued once they step inside the prison walls, the primary way in which they're known to prison guards. "We don't identify them as people," Espinosa said.
Espinosa invited contributing artists who have since been released from prison to join him Friday for the opening night of "Numbers," his initiative's first official art exhibit. A few pieces were previously on display during a three-day art crawl along Payne Avenue in early October.
Themes run a wide range, from a large piece dedicated to the memory of George Floyd, a Black man who was killed in May while in custody of four Minneapolis police officers, to more abstract or introspective self-portraits.
"Hopefully, you can find some redemption, and healing on both sides of the aisle," Espinosa said. "I'm just trying to let these men know that transformation is possible, but it has to come from within you. You have to want to change."
He recalled friends from the South Bronx who ended up as addicts and inmates themselves, paths he narrowly avoided. No one, in his opinion, is without blame.
"Some of us have done things that are worse than others," Espinosa said. "My upbringing was good. I made bad choices myself that could have led me into the prison walls like those I work at."
"Even though we have done things wrong, we have got to treat each other with respect and humanity," he added. "Look at what's going on in this world right now. There's so much division. Not enough love. I came out here from New York City and was told this was ' Minnesota nice.' I don't see the niceness."
IF YOU GO
- What: "Numbers," a 60-piece exhibit of art by inmates at Stillwater Correctional Facility, presented by Art from the Inside.
- When: Antonio Espinosa, a corrections officer at the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Stillwater, has invited contributing artists who have since been released from prison to join him from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 6, for the opening night of "Numbers," on display through late November.
- Where: Creators Space, 218 E. Seventh St., Lowertown St. Paul.
- More info: artfromtheinsidemn.org
(c)2020 the Pioneer Press (St. Paul, Minn.)