MSUToday
Published: Feb. 26, 2019

Poetry course provides foundation for art exhibit

Contact(s): Kara Dempsey dempse47@msu.edu

Following the latest semester of his prison poetry course, Guillermo Delgado, artist and academic specialist in community and socially engaged arts in the Residential College in the Arts and Humanities at MSU, cultivated several years’ worth of inspiring stories and inmate artwork – resulting in the exhibit opening of “Rituals to Seed with Crystals” in RCAH’s LookOut! Art Gallery.

Delgado’s pieces on display range from paintings to mandalas. Other pieces included in the exhibition include mandalas, zines and poetry from RCAH students and incarcerated individuals over the years. There is a commemorative piece to recognize the absence of incarcerated students who have participated in Delgado’s courses, as well as an interactive installation consisting of yoga mats and blocks that visitors can use while viewing the exhibit.

The inspiration behind turning the prison poetry course experience into an exhibit was to “shine a light on the dark and hidden places we have created in this country,” Delgado said.

The exhibit explores the creative work of the incarcerated while also bringing to life their voices and the deprivation they have experienced. Exposing the public to the poverty often experienced by those who have offended can provide greater perspective as to how some turn to criminal acts.

“The exhibition allows the campus community to expand their perspective on what’s going on outside the MSU perimeter,” Delgado said. “We are surrounded by communities struggling with poverty and a lack of resources. These deficiencies break people down and destroy lives. It is in all of our best interests to understand this and find ways to become engaged citizens creating change that allows everybody more dignity and opportunities for building better lives and communities.”

Delgado’s work has not only expanded student perspectives on incarceration in our country. He said that he has learned lessons about his own perspectives along the journey.

“I’m inspired by [incarcerated peoples’] ability to write poems and create images for the first time in their lives and come away with a brightness in their eyes that they’ve never had before — or had abandoned a long time ago,” Delgado noted.

Delgado explained that his work with the incarcerated and the building of this exhibition has had a tremendous influence on the inmates as well.

“The incarcerated people are grateful for the opportunity to be themselves — shed the hard personas they have to wear in order to survive in prison,” he explained. “They have expressed that they feel a desire to live, be present, and that our program makes them feel human again. I’ve been told that our program is a window of light.”

Tessa Paneth-Pollak, director of the LookOut! Art Gallery, has learned about different aspects of incarceration and teaching during the creation of the exhibit. Paneth-Pollak said that the interaction the incarcerated students have with Delgado gives them a chance to experience a professor as a human rather than a distant authority figure. She also noted the large impact that taking education beyond the classroom walls has on the community.

“Professor Delgado is teaching RCAH students about the problems of mass incarceration in this country,” Paneth-Pollack said. “But he is also teaching students to work within the current system, as flawed as it is, to bring resources to the currently incarcerated.”

The effect on the incarcerated students is significant, she said.

“The creative processes Professor Delgado introduces in his classes offsets a lot of pressures inmates are under in the prison system," said Paneth-Pollack. “They are hungry to learn, to experience and to create art. It is the humanities at their best: deeply humanizing work, for all involved.” 

“Rituals to Seed Clouds with Crystals” will be on display from Feb. 25 to March 15. The RCAH LookOut! Art Gallery is open from noon to 3 p.m. Monday to Friday. The opening reception will take place from 4 to 6 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 26 in the LookOut! Art Gallery, Snyder-Phillips Hall on MSU’s campus. All are welcome and admission is free.