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Expressing tales of the incarcerated through art

by Jennifer Johnson,

Illustrations by a Pacific Northwest College of Art associate professor are providing an outlet of expression for the incarcerated. 

Martin French
Martin French

The work of Martin French, department head of illustration, recently accompanied a Pennsylvania man’s tale of alcoholism, sobriety and healing that’s part of an Instagram series called “The Inside Stories Project.” 

Developed by Level, an Austin-based nonprofit that aims to break the cycle of incarceration through education, the series shares the stories of inmates told in their own words. Select stories will be illustrated by artists nationwide. 

Image of prisonerAlex Wright, co-founder and executive director of Level, found French’s work online and reached out with a proposal for the project. 

“Alex felt the overall aesthetic of my work fit well with the creative brief and offered me a great deal of freedom in creating the images,” said French. 

His imagery — a portrait, a reimagined butterfly and a graphic interpretation of the incarcerated person's cell number — reflect the transformation and terror the man experienced.

Image of bird

French has connected with prisoners through his work before. In recent years he’s become acquainted with a chaplain who volunteers at the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem. She incorporated his art into her presentations and invited him to the prison, where he met and handed out his work to hundreds of people. 

Engaging with the incarcerated like this grew from a personal experience: After mentoring someone who spent a decade in and out of the justice system, French became keenly aware of how broken it is and wanted to do something about it, he said. 

Image of prisoner cell number“It’s such a huge issue affecting so many lives,” he said. “It’s so embedded in our culture, and the thought of making any kind of change is really daunting. To have the opportunity to make even the most incremental change for individuals is meaningful.” 

Over the next year, he’ll likely do two or three more stories for Level and continue his involvement at the state penitentiary. 

“I’m hopeful and will continue to work for change,” he said. 

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