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KU team wins NEA grant to turn women transitioning from incarceration's challenges into interactive art

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Spiraling questions artwork titled "Moral Labyrinth" by Sarah Newman

LAWRENCE — An interdisciplinary research team at the University of Kansas has been awarded a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to turn challenges, biases and pressures women face while transitioning from incarceration back to society into an interactive artistic exhibition for the public.

The two-year, $25,000 NEA grant will fund a partnership among a KU journalism and mass communications researcher, a Spencer Museum of Art curator and an artist at Harvard University to develop “Returning: Community-Based Visual Art Experience Involving Women Transitioning from Jail or Prison.” The project will partner researchers, students, artists and formerly incarcerated women to raise awareness and empathy for the obstacles the women face in returning from incarceration.

Hyunjin Seo, associate professor of journalism & mass communications, is the project director and principal investigator. She will partner with Sarah Newman, director of art and education at Harvard University’s MetaLAB, and Joey Orr, director of the Integrated Arts Research Initiative at the Spencer Museum, as well as journalism and arts students at KU.

“We are aiming to facilitate conversations about structural barriers and societal biases facing women transitioning from jail or prison,” Seo said. “These women face challenges including lack of access to technology, financial resources and health care. The reason we wanted to focus on interactive visual media is to make the project very community-based and engaging. I know from my previous research and interactions with the women that they are interested in art projects and creative and accessible ways to tell their story.”

The researchers will work with women in the Midwest, primarily in Kansas, to learn more about the difficulties they face in their transition back to society. The artists, students, researchers and participants will develop ways to incorporate those messages in interactive, technology-based artworks that will be displayed for the public on the Lawrence campus in 2022. The public will be welcome to provide feedback on the art, ask questions and get involved in addressing the challenges the women face upon their transition through an open forum as part of the exhibition, Seo said.

The artists and researchers will learn from the women involved in the project and help them learn skills and reach new audiences with their messages.

“The artist is not there to teach the women She is there to engage them in conversation and collaborate in conceptualizing the project and making it a reality,” Seo said. “The women will gain skills in digital storytelling, and importantly, they will also build awareness and empathy for the challenges they face.”

Those challenges, including a lack of access to technology or lack of education in technology while incarcerated, have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, said Seo, who has also led a research project to educate transitioning women in technology and to boost employment skills. About 60% of women making the transition have children under 18. A lack of affordable housing, reduced internet access by closed or reduced hours at public libraries and children learning from home make it difficult for these women to gain employment, especially when they already often face discrimination based upon their involvement with the criminal justice system. A high number of women in incarceration are women of color. Lack of access to health care and racial discrimination will be among the topics explored through the project.

Raising awareness and fostering empathy can help women recently released from jail or prison avoid recidivism as well as motivate the public to help address barriers to these women’s success, Seo said.

“The National Endowment for the Arts is proud to support this project from the University of Kansas,” said Ann Eilers, Arts Endowment acting chair. “KU is among the arts organizations across the country that have demonstrated creativity, excellence and resilience during this very challenging year.”

Image: "Moral Labyrinth" by Sarah Newman Image credit: sarahwnewman.com