The Ohio Prison Arts Connection Boosts the Creative Prospects of Former Inmates

A poster project creates an opportunity for artists leaving incarceration.

Amanda Page
Aimee Wissman in her studio at 400 West Rich

When Aimee Wissman was released from prison, she wanted to build a life as a visual artist but didn’t know where to start. “I had no jumping-off point,” she says. 

She began volunteering with the Ohio Prison Arts Connection, which exists “at the intersection of the arts and the justice system,” says Jessie Glover, lead facilitator for OPAC, a coalition that pushes for arts access for people in prison and after their release. 

Reentry from prison poses a host of problems, and resources can be scarce. Finding suitable housing, transportation and a job that pays a living wage can be overwhelming tasks. Making art can provide solace and possibly a career, if “returning" artists—a term advocates often use in place of “formerly incarcerated,” which carries stigma—find the means, mentorship and money to make and sell their creations. 

“Our most important goal is to put money in the hands of artists making work,” Glover says. 

Last fall, OPAC commissioned six returning artists to create works that will appear as a series of poster-sized prints, which became available in April. They’ll sell limited-edition prints at ohioprisonartsconnection.org, and then they’ll release a larger run for schools and other public places to get the art out into the world, Glover says. Sales proceeds go to the artists, who include locals Wissman, Jamie Ochs, Whitney Johnson and Kamisha Thomas, as well as Gwendolyn Garth from Cleveland and Brittany Vondenhuevel from Piqua. The poster project was supposed to be shown this spring at the Carnegie Gallery in the Columbus Main Library as part of a larger exhibition of work by returning artists and people in Ohio prisons, but COVID-19 halted all gallery activity, and the show has been postponed. 

Aimee Wissman works on a piece in her studio at 400 West Rich.

In addition to her work with OPAC, Wissman joined Thomas to establish The Returning Artists Guild, an organization that helps people involved with the justice system connect to the resources they need to make art, and to make money from it. Returning artists often fail to take ownership of their own stories, Wissman says. “They’ve told it too much for free.” The guild helps them learn the benefits of sharing their stories professionally through artist's statements and relieving themselves of the burden of constantly explaining their backgrounds. 

“Mainly, we’re working on reshaping the narrative of who is incarcerated and why, and finding community support for ourselves,” Wissman says. 

The Returning Artists Guild provides one-on-one help crafting artist's statements, as well as setting goals and applying for funding. Overall, the organization aims to help returning artists gain the necessary know-how to build sustainable careers and develop the networks they lack after leaving prison. 

“It’s not like you have a friend you went to art school with, let alone have a professional artist who can help you navigate how to get a studio space or funding or feedback on your work,” Wissman says. 

The hope is that the OPAC poster project will provide wider exposure and the Main Library show will be rescheduled once restrictions are lifted, offering another key career step. 

“Some people in the guild would never have shared their art anywhere but social media,” Wissman says, “and it’s important they see it on the wall in a gallery.”