Connections from the Inside

In 2013, a 30-day pledge to do a daily act of love led Tatiana von Furstenberg to seek out a prison pen-pal matchmaking service; what she found was the Black and Pink Newsletter, a monthly publication created by formerly incarcerated prisoners for those currently serving time. “I devoured their newsletter,” she tells us, “and when I learned how especially forgotten and vulnerable the LGBTQ incarcerated population was, I contacted the people in charge of the newsletter to see how I could help further.” Together with Black and Pink, von Furstenberg has organized “On The Inside,” an exhibition of work by currently incarcerated LGBTQ artists, which opened on November 5 at the Abrons Arts Center in New York City.

Complied from over 4,000 submissions from facilities across the United States, “On The Inside” gives artistic voice to an unheard and unseen population. Despite limited access to art supplies—the artists mostly used letter-sized paper, dull-pencils, and ball-point ink tubes—the exhibition features impactful and skillfully rendered work which offers an intimate glimpse into the identities, dreams, and personal histories of the artists. “We have a lot of expressions of love,” says von Furstenberg “and when you’re in a facility you’re not allowed to have physical contact with another person, which is just absurd because your body needs to be touched and loved.” Other common themes that have emerged in the work have been of fighters, spirituality, and, von Furstenburg notes, celebrity portraits: “About 40 percent of the collection is celebrities, and they are different from the ones valued on the outside. They are relatable outsiders like Robin Williams, Michael Jackson, Prince, or Rihanna,” she shares. “If you are not receiving mail from anyone in the world, [pop artists] are in essence giving you a relationship with the outside world.”

Viewers of the art are also encouraged to respond to the artists via an on-site transcription device, and can arrange long-term pen-pal relationships with the artists—forms of reciprocal communication that harken back to von Furstenberg’s initial inspiration for the project. “The entire inciting incident of this project was to let these fellow people know that I was thinking of them. … It was so important that I make it easy for people to give back by letting the artist know that they were being thought of and valued.”