‘Impact on Innocence’: new exhibit explores emotional effect of mass incarceration

  • Alexia Cota, manager of the Augusta Savage Gallery at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, talks about the new exhibit “Impact on Innocence: Mass Incarceration.” STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • A turntable bearing words moves beneath a gavel, part of a show titled "Impact on Innocence: Mass Incarceration" at the Augusta Savage Gallery at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Detail of a painting from “Impact on Innocence: Mass Incarceration” by Deborah McDuff in the Augusta Savage Gallery. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Deborah McDuff uses charcoal and acrylic paint to create a stark look in her work in “Impact on Innocence: Mass Incarceration," a new exhibit at the Augusta Savage Gallery at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • A turntable bearing words moves beneath a gavel in "Impact on Innocence: Mass Incarceration" by Deborah McDuff in the Augusta Savage Gallery at UMass Amherst Jan. 24, 2019. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Painting from "Impact on Innocence: Mass Incarceration" by Deborah McDuff in the Augusta Savage Gallery at the UMass Amhe. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Many of Deborah McDuff’s paintings in "Impact on Innocence: Mass Incarceration" focus on how children are affected by parents and guardians being sent to jail. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Painting from "Impact on Innocence: Mass Incarceration" by Deborah McDuff in the Augusta Savage Gallery at UMass Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • The Augusta Savage gallery at UMass Amherst has just opened "Impact on Innocence: Mass Incarceration" by California artist Deborah McDuff. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Many of the portraits in the exhibit focus on how children are affected by jailed family members. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Some of the paintings in "Impact on Innocence: Mass Incarceration" focus on people behind bars. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Eyes are a dominant focus in McDuff’s paintings. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Painting from "Impact on Innocence: Mass Incarceration" at the Augusta Savage Gallery at UMass Amherstca House, Thursday, Jan. 24, 2019. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Painting from "Impact on Innocence: Mass Incarceration" at the Augusta Savage Gallery at UMass Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

Staff Writer
Published: 1/30/2019 3:31:46 PM

The images are stark: black and white charcoal and acrylic canvas paintings that capture the emotional bleakness not only of prisoners affected by mass incarceration, but their families and children as well. 

A new exhibit at the Augusta Savage Gallery, at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, features the work of southern California artist Deborah McDuff, who says she aims to address social justice issues with an emphasis on showing emotion and the human condition.

The title of the exhibit, which opens this Friday, spells out McDuff’s theme: “Impact on Innocence: Mass Incarceration.” 

In a recent phone call, McDuff said she started work on the paintings in 2014, influenced by the stories she heard from her friends and neighbors. She wanted to create black and white portraits inspired by the stories of real people and their plights. 

“I teach a Zumba class and this lady is 81 and she said, ‘I’m so glad that you’re doing this. My son was imprisoned, and I had to take care of his 10 children,’ ” McDuff said. 

One of her paintings features six children looking through glass window panes. The children are all different ethnicities — black, white, Latino — but all convey similarly strong and layered emotions: anxiety, sorrow, fear.

Five of the children are alone, but the face of a female figure, possibly a mother, leans in toward the sixth child, a boy, perhaps to try and console him with a kiss. Yet McDuff notes that it’s only an impression: The woman isn’t fully seen, and the boy’s face looks stricken. 

Another portrait depicts a child with large and wavering eyes, haunted with fear, as a hand reaches out to him. Other paintings are more stoic; portraits of incarcerated men and women convey mixed emotions, from defiance and anger to regret and forlornness. 

“I know that the black and Latino communities are the largest [incarcerated] populations, but it’s across the board when it comes to ethnicity,” said McDuff. “It’s really supposed to represent kids looking inside and outside the jail wall.” 

One of the most striking aspects of McDuff’s work are the eyes and faces of the paintings of men, women and children. 

“I wanted to concentrate on the eyes because the eyes, although this is cliché, are the window to the soul,” McDuff noted. “I wanted to focus on the eyes and let people enter that being, and I didn’t want [viewers] to focus on a particular individual.

“I have a [painting of a] man who is in despair, whether he was in prison rightfully or wrongfully,” she added, “but I wanted that hopelessness or that acceptance of ‘This is where I am. I can’t go anywhere else.’ ” 

The exhibit also includes a faux record player, with a gavel as a substitute for a turntable needle. Mock license plates, all from 2013, adorn the sides of the structure, and they list the number of incarcerated people in each U.S. state. Massachusetts had 21,400 people in prison that year. A “record” on the turntable reads, “The arm of justice hits the wrong groove.” 

According to a number of sources, including the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, the United States as of 2013 not only had more adults behind bars — over 2.2 million — than any country in the world but the highest per capita rate of incarceration, approximately 655 people per 100,000.  

As part of the exhibit, McDuff, a self-employed artist who has shown her work at various festivals, galleries, museums and universities, created sound collages that are the “sounds of anxiety” to add an auditory element to the mostly visual exhibit.

“As [the record] turns, you’ll be able to hear the sounds of anxiety. It’s a sound collage of the different things and it’s a beat. With anxiety, there’s a consistent beat that’s not eradicated. It’s just there. It’s consistent.” 

McDuff, who earned an MFA in visual arts from Lesley University, College of Art and Design in Cambridge, said she wants to bring “Impact on Innocence” across the country for people to be able to “experience what the masses are going through.” 

She said she hopes those who view her work take away an understanding of what it feels like to be caught up in the criminal justice system in the United States. 

“A problem is an opportunity to do better. So what can we do about this now?” she asked. 

Chris Goudreau can be reached at cgoudreau@gazettenet.com. 

An opening reception for “Impact on Innocence” takes place on Friday, Feb. 1 from 5 to 7 p.m. at the Augusta Savage Gallery, 180 Infirmary Way at 103 New Africa House at UMass Amherst. The show runs through Feb. 22. The gallery can be reached at (413) 545-5177 and at fac.umass.edu/Online/default.asp?BOparam::WScontent::loadArticle::permalink=McDuff




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