Interview with Isaac Scott, Resident Artist and Justice in Education Scholar at Columbia University's Center for Justice
Isaac Scott is an artist and scholar at Columbia's Center for Justice. He is Co-Founder of Opportunities and Change, which facilitates solution-driven projects, such as The Confined Arts, Love Thyself First and T.e.a.m. Arts. Isaac is Director of The Confined Arts Program as well as a lead research assistant in Columbia's Social Relations Lab.
Tell me how The Confined Arts works.
As it stands today, The Confined Arts is a platform for currently and formerly incarcerated artists to show their work. The platform is also open to those artists who work in and around the prison system who may not have been in prison themselves but are activists who are dedicated to the end of this crisis. Also, and perhaps more importantly, it is a platform for those artists who have been directly impacted by mass incarceration, perhaps with a family member who was/is incarcerated.
Before I came to Columbia, this project was simply random exhibitions. It was exhibitions with collections of art shown from different artists, others and myself. But, when I got here, under the leadership of Professor Geraldine Downey and some of the other people I work with at the Center for Justice, I’ve learned about how this should be a program and how I can develop it more. So, today, that’s where I am going and how I got our goals into place.
So, first, we provide opportunities for artists coming home from prison and also for those artists who are still in prison now – opportunities to cultivate their skills or learn creative form of expression that can be beneficial to them in there and outside.
Second, one of the main things we want to do through our art is to change the narrative and tell the correct story. You don’t know as much about prison as you think you do. Plus, what you heard, at least for most people, is probably from someone who has not been in prison themselves. The story is never told correctly. Through the arts, we want to give artists the opportunity to tell their own story.
For example, I’m an artist and when I came home, I knew it would be hard to get into galleries and make it as an artist. Yet, I was able to use my art to impact lives and provide opportunities for myself. While I may not make a lot of money for the paintings I actually do, I’ve found ways to do meaningful work around my paintings, such as taking a painting and doing a workshop around its visual connotations – I would get paid for that. I hope to train other artists on how to use their work in a similar fashion. That’s what I mean: teaching about how to use your craft as an entrepreneur to make ends meet. For the people I’m working with, we know that art is their passion and we understand it’s worth all the time we put into working with them on this.
What does it mean to be a “solution driven project”?
There are a number of things we want to do with the arts but in terms of core goals what we want to do as a program is to address first the inhumane narrative that is commonly associated with people with a criminal history. Secondly, there is a lack of opportunities for incarcerated people in certain fields, particularly for men and women who are not looking at their craft/art as valuable enough to provide them a job in that area.
We work to change the narrative by providing a stream of education to the public via exhibitions, discussions and events.
You may have friends who have no connection to prison; the stories they hear are different than the stories someone would hear from someone who has family or friends who have been in prison. That means a lot because when you two go into the voters’ booth because the story you’ve heard makes a difference in whether you choose this candidate who is for reform of the criminal justice system or that one who is not.
The other thing we provide is entrepreneurial opportunities for people to develop their craft. This means overcoming the problems that people coming home may face in seeing opportunities in their craft. You have to see your craft as valuable enough to get a job in that area, which is particularly hard for those who have been in prison say for 20-30 years and art is what they’ve been practicing for decades and then they have to find their way going outside to the world and back home.
Next I think is to create awareness on the policy level with the art – AKA legislative art. This means artists actually making art and taking it to doorsteps of legislators. I want us to utilize our crafts as a way to creatively get a message across to people, using it creatively and directly in the policy world. The idea here still has to be developed.
Isaac Scott along with Center for Justice has an event taking place near campus next Saturday, A Woman's Celebration - see sidebar for details. Read the full interview with Isaac Scott, and hear the story about his work as well as other ongoing efforts taking place at Columbia to humanize the mass incarceration system in America and integrate men and women who have been affected by it: