Carolyn Stanford is not an ordinary artist agent. She may collect unique pieces of art, but her exhibitions feature the work of artists with little access to society–like inmates from federal prisons. On March 14th, she debuted an exhibit featuring the work of non-violent offenders at Gallery M in Harlem.
Her agency, Inside Out Art, works with inmates in federal prisons in order to bring their work done on the “inside” out into the public, as the name suggests.
She previously owned a T-shirt business, but when a friend of hers told her he knew someone in prison that could help her do screen prints, she was excited to make the connection. However, the inmate never sent screen prints. Instead, he began sending her wall art. The idea behind Inside Out Art evolved from here.
For Stanford, the reasons for starting her organization were also very personal.
“All my life, I have been in and out of prison visiting family. From uncles to brothers, even my own son.” Stanford said. “I just felt like this was something that was brought to me in order to help those who are inside.”
It is also beneficial to the inmates as well. They receive a percentage of the proceeds from their work that is sold. They can use these proceeds to buy more canvases, oils or pastels in order to create more art that Stanford can feature in her home gallery in the Bronx.
On March 14, certain pieces traveled from the Bronx to Harlem to be featured at Gallery M: Weston United Community Renewal, which regularly exhibits work by artists of color. Several colorful, textured and non-textured works featuring Black iconic figures such as the Rev. Al Sharpton, Ray Charles and the late rapper Notorious B.I.G. framed the white walls as people drifted from the streets into the storefront-style gallery.
“The quality of the art is amazing,” Donald Giovany, an artist whose work has been exhibited in New York and Haiti, said. “You see African influence, African-American influence and every aspect of American life; it is amazing.”
Aside from providing art to the masses, Stanford said that one of the other objectives of exhibiting inmates’ work is to ensure success after they are released from prison.
“When someone comes out of prison, the first thing anyone says [to them] is, ‘You gotta get a job.’ I want them to be their own entrepreneurs and form their own companies when they come out of jail, because it is going to be really hard for them to gain employment,” Stanford said.
In addition to providing inmates the opportunity to gain employment after imprisonment, Inside Out Art also gives visibility to inmates who are tucked away in the prison systems. According to Kevin Barnes-Ceeney, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, Stanford’s exhibition reminds people that imprisoned men and women are “still a part of our community.”
“It’s a way of bridging prison to community, which then is really important when people are trying to re-enter back into society,’ Barnes-Ceeney said.
Stanford’s exhibit will be on view at Gallery M: Weston United Community Renewal at 123 W. 135th St. until Friday, March 22.