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Artists fulfill the dreams of death row inmates

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Holly Wayne_640
Holly Wayne_640

Riverbend Maximum Security Institution, Tennessee, currently houses 79 people on death row. This summer, a group of artists made weekly visits to the prison to collaborate with the inmates. Unit 2 (part 1), named for the part of the prison where the inmates are held, is an exhibition displaying the first results of that collaboration.

The exhibited works mostly fall into two categories: "add-ons" and "surrogates." Add-ons are works that have been handed back and forth between artist and inmate over the course of the summer, modifying or adding to the drawing or painting with each exchange. The surrogate projects are perhaps more interesting, at least from a conceptual standpoint. The inmates — who have been on death row for up to 35 years — asked the artists to experience things on their behalf that are impossible within the confines of their imprisonment.

"[These men] are more than the sum of their worst day."

In one case, a condemned man asked the artist to go out at night and gaze upon the stars. The artist took a photograph on the view, which the prisoner hadn't seen for 25 years, before it was inscribed by the inmate. "It has been 25 years since I have seen the stars in the open sky," the inscription reads. Unit 2 (part 1), as the name suggests, is just the first in what will be a series of exhibitions. "Although they may have done a terrible thing, [these men] are more than the sum of their worst day," co-organizer Robin Paris tells Hyperallergic, "they have taught us so much about community and about the importance of many things we might take for granted."