Center for Contemporary Art and Culture

How We Free Us: A Transformative Justice Initiative Exhibition

Dorothy Lemelson Innovation Studio + Ed Cauduro and Dane Nelson Collection Studies Lab

June 23 - July 29, 2023

Exhibition Statement

How We Free Us is an exhibition and informative visual experience emanating from the mission and values of the Transformative Justice Initiative, a program located within the Politics, Policy, Law and Ethics Department of Willamette University, dedicated to paradigm shifts and policy transformation within the criminal justice system to create alternatives to incarceration and institutional and individual violence and to provide support and resources for reentry. 

Drawings, mixed media works, and creative writing by Kirk Charlton, Sterling Cunio and Jerome Sloan cumulatively map out the deeply personal journeys of each artist with incarceration and the powerful impacts that art has in supporting the intellectual, creative, spiritual and political expressions of people directly impacted by the criminal justice system of america.

In one gallery space is a three-wall, salon-style display of a series of drawings by Charlton (created while he was incarcerated at the Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution) alongside a mixed media series by Sloan (created during his incarceration at the Oregon State Penitentiary) that document and illustrate the harsh realities of prison life along with both of their individual and collective community experiences inside. Recorded on paper and illustration board, moments of community, connection, joy and personal growth stand out amidst the physical and institutional violence, offering viewers raw insight into the complexities of life behind bars.

Outside of the larger gallery space, viewers walk alongside a graphic timeline that maps out a selection of key dates and policies researched and curated by Melissa Buis, Professor of Politics, Policy, Law and Ethics at Willamette University and Sterling Cunio. Beginning at year 1776 with the Walnut Street Prison (the first penitentiary in the United States) and ending at present day in the larger gallery space, this timeline gives a brief education on policies and practices that have formed the criminal justice system of america.

The larger space, where we hope viewers may end their exhibition experience, highlights the profound and powerful work that all three artists practice in their lives beyond incarceration and the power for art to heal and give meaning to life after prison. Charlton developed Art Inside Out, a program dedicated to teaching art as a compassionate practice for personal development and community healing, often facilitated within correctional institutions and other settings such as memory care facilities. Sloane has dedicated his life to his artistic practice and public art commissions to inspire and give hope by sharing his personal journey. Cunio writes and performs spoken word poetry along with social and community work such as the Transformative Justice Initiative amongst many other causes and organizations. Additionally, Sloan and Cunio both had their sentences commuted by the State of Oregon and former Governor Brown – an example of steps in the right direction that foster healing and opportunity for those incarcerated.

How We Free Us is a celebration of these three creatives and the belief that it is possible to shift from systems of punishment fueled by racial, gender and economic oppression to a system of accountability, transformation and healing fueled by art, love, autonomy, and community-based alternatives.

Artist Bios

Kirk Charlton
Born in Hawaii and obvious exposure to beautiful people and scenery contributed to my way of living and attitude in art. Moving to NY at a very young age developed an early understanding of contrast and how things are different and that's okay. Both parents were musicians,which shaped me in many ways but that's the nice stuff. I had a traumatic experience when I was 8. It created this doubt within me and a feeling of not being important. I struggled with this for years and believe that my past negative history developed because of my lack of self worth. I ruminate about this and I do very much feel terrible and remorseful. I have discovered, however, that my wrongdoings of the past are in fact wrong, but they are things that I have done, not who I really am.I have worked very hard to change and believe that I wasn't born to be this malefactor who will never amount to anything. I have a collection of children's books that encourage kids to go far in life. They are educational and diverse. The "I want to be a," books offer occupations such as being a Marine Biologist or fun occupations like a Jazz Musician or Artist. The art is good of course. I developed a program called Art Inside Out that will be implemented into the department of Corrections here in Oregon. We use art as a conduit to get to our true authentic selves. That's where we can make changes to better our lives. Please ask me about Art Inside Out, we have professional endorsements and testimonials from people who believe in my novel concept and approach to help. I have a beautiful daughter named Sophie. I could have qualified for the worst dad ever at one time but that's in the past as well. I want to reunite and prove to her somehow that we could still develop a relationship that would not include my constant apologies and bad navigation. I don't know how to be a dad, but I want to. I am exhibiting my MY PERSONAL EXPERIENCE at the wonderful PNCA. These graphite drawings are very true and poignant to me. It describes many moments for me while incarcerated.

Jerome Sloan
I create art because it is my way of pushing Action! A great piece of art should compel you to take some sort of action or change the way you think. I send my art out with the hope that it plays a part in changing people or moves them in a positive direction. My goal is to help the process of growth and change. My art documents the struggle with trying to make yourself a better person. I feel we can all relate to that. It is my job to be an example that it is positive because I was totally lost and serving life in prison before art helped change my life. I am an African American artist from Portland, Oregon. I started out as a spray painter in the 1980s when I was a kid and I have now been an artist for more than 20 years. Art has helped me through personal struggles to make sense of and find meaning in my life. I was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole in 1994. I was only 19 yrs. Old when I was sentenced to spend the rest of my life in prison... Until last year, Governor Kate Brown commuted my sentence, and I was able to earn parole. I was released in May of 2022 because of the social work that I have done for over a decade. I taught art and facilitated cognitive programing for people in prison that were trying to make the same changes that I had made. I love to take a real image and push it into the abstract. The further I push it the art goes beyond words and structure. It becomes spiritual. The designs that make up my alphabet and squares help me reach that place. When I first started creating art, I was limited in what I had to create with. I helped push my creativity, so I have kept that theme throughout the years. I create with pastel, juice packets, coffee, pen, whatever is available... as long as it happens.

Sterling Cunio
Both an Oregon Literary Arts Fellow and a PEN America Arts for Social Justice Fellow, Sterling Cunio is a spoken word poet and author who dedicated life to the service of others while inside the Oregon Department of Corrections where he served nearly 28 years before being released for outstanding reformation. Sterling was a founder of the Restorative Justice Program within Oregon State Penitentiary which focused primarily on reducing harms, building peace and transforming both the street and prison culture using arts, education, community engagement and conflict resolution. Sterling mentored countless others in positive transformation and supported them in becoming change agents as credible messengers living their amends. Since his release he works as the Program Coordinator for Willamette University’s Transformative Justice Initiative helping justice impacted people, and also works as a Storyteller for Church at the Park serving Salem’s houseless population.