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Art Created by People Incarcerated on Rikers Island Explores ‘Safe Spaces’

During the month of October, viewers are invited to visit with the work of a particularly underseen and often misrepresented group—those currently held on Rikers Island, the principal jail complex for New York City. Presented by the MPS Art Therapy department and curated by Lesley Achitoff (MPS 2004 Art Therapy) and Robert Belgrod (MPS 2016 Art Therapy), “Safe Spaces” is a multidisciplinary show by those incarcerated at Rikers and participating in the Creative Arts Therapy Program, an initiative of New York City Health + Hospitals. The goals of the program include, among many others, the elevation of self-esteem, insights into obstacles and opportunity of expression for those artists taking part, and greater awareness on the part of the public. I spoke with Achitoff about her work with those in the criminal justice system and the upcoming exhibition.

How did you become involved with this group of people held on Rikers Island, and how did you and Rob come to work together?

I have been working on Rikers Island since the spring of 2009. I learned about an art therapy position while working for the Center for Alternative Sentencing and Employment Services (CASES). I thought it would be interesting to shift from working with an alternative to incarceration program to the actual jail where those who are incarcerated receive few services and are invisible to the majority of New Yorkers. I hired Rob after hearing about his excellent work from the Chair of the MPS Art Therapy department at SVA. Rob is part of the team of 12 Creative Arts therapists currently working on Rikers Island, and he works with people in isolation as well as adolescent males.

Could you tell me a little more about who the artists are and how this work was created? Were they involved in the curation and exhibition planning process?

It is impossible to generalize about the artists whose work is on display. Our groups provide therapy for adolescents 16 to 17, young adults 18 to 21, and adults of all ages, male and female. Some are receiving more mental health services than others, some are here for the first time and others have been on the Island before. Their charges vary enormously and, again, few have been convicted of crimes. They are often too poor to post bail, and so must remain on Rikers awaiting trials. The population on Rikers shifts frequently, as it is a jail as opposed to a prison. Few people on Rikers are actually sentenced. This group of artists works with the 12 Creative Arts therapists currently running groups on Rikers, a program I direct.

Each year, the Creative Arts Therapy team develops a theme for the show. This year's theme is Safe Spaces, which forces our participants to think about what safety means to them and how they can find it. Or not. They are free to express both negative and positive thoughts and feelings regarding the theme of safety. They were not really involved in the curation of the show, however many of them value that we provide an opportunity for them to comment on their own creative process to further share their experiences and many realities.

What do you hope to highlight for visitors to the exhibition?

Our goal is to help the artists gain a feeling of empowerment and self-esteem, develop a voice in an environment where they do not have one, and recognize their strengths and talents. These individuals seek to be heard and inform the community that there are thousands of human beings incarcerated on Rikers Island who have hopes and dreams, insights about themselves and the world. This show provides them with a feeling of connection. Although most of them cannot personally visit the show, many have encouraged their loved ones to attend.

We encourage all the visitors at the opening and to the show in general to share their impressions of the work and offer any words of encouragement they feel inspired to express. We provide a way for these comments to be shared and distribute them to the incarcerated individuals. During past shows I have witnessed the reactions of the artists when reading these comments and it is very moving. They are not accustomed to personal attention and appreciation, so these comments help them feel heard, understood and recognized. We believe that this process contributes to much healing of trauma and feelings of abandonment and assists the artists as they try to move forward in society and in the world.

How is this project different or unique compared to work you have previously done? What stands out for you about it?

This is the third show in the community of artwork created by people incarcerated on Rikers Island. It had never been done before, and we are very grateful to School of Visual Arts for providing this opportunity, and for the city for understanding the value of such a show. We have always found ways to display the work created in our groups on the Island, however sharing with the community has really affected the passions and motivations of our population in a meaningful way. Previous to working with artists at this site, I had never experienced the challenges of offering art therapy to people whose work was rarely shared or seen by others, so it has been thrilling to be able to offer this. Coping with anxiety, loss and neglect in the community is vastly different than attempting to do this while locked up, and this opportunity forms a bridge for everyone involved.

“Safe Spaces” will be on view through October 26 at the MPS Art Therapy Project Space, 132 West 21st Street, 5th floor. A reception for the exhibition will take place on Wednesday, October 4, from 5:00 to 8:00pm, and two gallery tours will be held, on Tuesday, October 10, from 6:00 to 7:00pm and on Wednesday, October 11, from 4:00 to 5:00pm. For more information, click here.

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