Artist Aimee Wissman wants to change the conversation around incarceration

Jim Fischer
A painting by Aimee Wissman

You don't have to take Aimee Wissman's word for it that there are issues with the nation's prison system, or that there are stigmas surrounding people who have recently returned to society following incarceration.

"Before I went to prison, I had so many images of what prison was," Wissman said in a recent interview, "and they were all wrong."

When Wissman was arrested and faced prison time, she was ready for it. A self-described "entitled, bratty junkie," Wissman became addicted to heroin at age 16. By the time she was arrested for robbery, she had already been trapped in an abusive relationship and lived through a decade as a user, once becoming so desperate for a fix that she found herself crawling along her dorm room floor looking for change — all consequences of what Wissman described as “psychic pain.”

"By the time I got to prison, I was done being a junkie. I was just never successful [getting clean]," she said.

She also had a one-year-old daughter and was facing an eight-year sentence, of which she would ultimately serve five years.

"I knew I couldn't just do [the] time … suffering and missing my child,” said Wissman, who instead spent the time “confronting a host of personal demons.” “I knew I couldn't continue the way I had been. Taking a long, hard look at yourself, daily, for years on end ... radically changes a person.”

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Journaling and drawing led to doing "art projects with the girls," Wissman said. Her mother would send craft supplies for these projects, which eventually became an art therapy program Wissman led for inmates.

"Caring and character and integrity became very important in prison," Wissman said. “I had nothing else."

A little over a year ago, Wissman was released.

"The challenges faced upon release are immense. Prison creates a second scenario you have to atone for," Wissman said.

Following her release, Wissman advocated for herself in much the same way she did while incarcerated, with art as a starting point. She painted — "I just show up and do what the paintings want me to do," Wissman said — and organized.

As Wissman rebuilt the relationships in her personal life, she built new connections with existing groups advocating on behalf of the incarcerated and those re-entering society. Where there were no organizations, she found reform-minded individuals and shared her story with them, or gathered those in re-entry and built connections on a personal level.

One of the ways she's using art as a platform to talk about incarceration and re-entry is a pop-up art show at 934 Gallery on Sunday, Sept. 22. The exhibit, “Grind Over Time,” will include the work of six returning citizens and at least 15 currently incarcerated artists, and will also feature music and spoken word performances.

The work, Wissman said, doesn't necessarily have to address the prison system or re-entry, but much of it does, a circumstance she described as almost unavoidable.

"The relationship of these artists to time and materials is unique. And this is in many ways the only language these artists have to talk about their condition," Wissman said.

Wissman hopes the conversations generated by the pop-up can help spearhead a movement that shifts the “paradigm around incarceration and re-entry.” “When I'm talking with these artists,” she said, “it's almost like we all consider ourselves change agents.”

934 Gallery

2-5 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 22

934 Cleveland Ave., Milo-Grogan

"Grind Over Time"