There are currently about 3000 Americans awaiting execution. California has the largest death row of any state, with 743. Although polls show that a majority of Americans still approve of capital punishment, those numbers have begun to decline-- due to several, high-profile DNA based exonerations of death row inmates, a recent string of botched executions, and a growing concern over patterns of racial discrimination in the criminal justice system. All of these factors have contributed to a growing discussion about the effectiveness, as well as the human and financial costs, of the death penalty and have returned this issue to public attention.
For the inaugural exhibition at USC Annenberg School of Journalism, organizers Widmann and Chappatte have partnered with Anne Hromadka, a Los Angeles-based independent curator and art consultant. Together, they crafted the overall exhibition design, framing language, and supplemental materials. Most importantly, this collaboration has led to a desire to create an exhibition experience that fosters dialogue. Widmann and Chappatte describe the engaging experience as one in which "members of any community that interact with this work will be able to engage directly with the subject matter, inmate stories, and larger questions of today’s criminal justice system."
Widmann and Chappatte invited a dozen of the top American cartoonists to share their take on the issue. Among those featured are: Pat Oliphant and Jeff Danziger (syndicated worldwide), David Horsey (Los Angeles Times), Jack Ohman (Sacramento Bee), Kal (The Economist, Baltimore Sun), Mike Luckovich (Atlanta Constitution), Ann Telnaes (Washington Post), Mark Wurtker (Politico), Joel Pett (Lexington Herald-Leader), Clay Bennett (Chattanooga Times Free Press), Rob Rogers (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette), and Scott Stantis (Chicago Tribune). Their work offers a sharp and witty point of view on the ongoing debate about capital punishment in America.
The inmates whose work is included in the show were asked to draw and paint their daily lives and personal experiences in prison. Widmann and Chappatte received works from inmates incarcerated in Texas, California, Georgia, North Carolina, Arkansas, Kansas, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee.
Prison regulations made establishing relationships with death row inmates challenging; so, the organizers needed to find innovative ways to reach their target population. They worked with several organizations in order to connect with prisoners including: Compassion, an Ohio-based group that helps to finance scholarships for the family members of victims; R.E.A.C.H. (Reciprocal Education And Community Healing) Coalition, which provides workshops to Tennessee death row inmates and shares their artwork and writing with the public; Witness To Innocence, the only US organization focused on empowering exonerated death row inmates; Minutes Before Six (MB6), a blog by death row inmates dedicated to using arts and literature as a form of rehabilitation; Who Decides Inc., a non-profit that educates the public about the history of the death penalty in America through art; and Art For Justice, founded in 1997 with the goal of using art to engage people in critical conversations about criminal justice.
In addition, Widmann and Chappatte were also able to conduct an in-person art workshop in Nashville, Tennessee’s maximum-security prison with death row inmates. The resulting collection of work offers testimonies and insights from a world that is beyond our imaginations.