Creating art with prisoners is not a common pastime for most artists.
But Amy Ho is not a typical artist. Courageous, driven and compassionate are just a few words that describe this artist who dedicates herself to working for change relating to human rights and prison reform.
Ho’s newest exhibition, entitled Spaces from Yesterday, premieres Thursday, Nov. 17 at San Diego State University Downtown Gallery and showcases her powerful work with three prisoners from San Quentin State Prison: Bobby Jean Evans, Jr., Dennis Crookes, and Chanthon Bun.
The 3D artist formed collaborative works with each of the inmates that were based on their own experiences from childhood through to their incarceration. Ahead of the premiere, Ho will give a lecture on Tuesday, Nov. 14 that chronicles her artistic career and her work at San Quentin, along with a gallery talk on Friday, Nov. 17.
Amidst the hustle and bustle of the installation, PACIFIC chatted with Ho about her vision and experiences in the prison system.
PACIFIC: How did you become interested in working with inmates?
AMY HO: I’ve been interested my entire life. When I was in high school, I started a human rights group, and in college, I thought I would go into human rights work. Then I discovered the Prison Arts Project and the William James Association. I asked myself as an artist, “How can I participate in prison reform?” I feel like I was meant to do it this way.
You are a brave, strong woman going into the prison system to teach. Have you ever been frightened?
No, I’ve never been afraid. It’s physically and emotionally safe. I feel like the art classes are inviting and a safe place for everyone to feel welcome and free to express themselves. One of the things I realized is that people are not good or bad, everyone is a mix. You have to be open to see that. Then there’s nothing to be afraid of.
What’s one thing you learned that surprised you that people might be surprised to learn about inmates?
For me, the thing I was most surprised to learn was that at the end of the day, we are all the same human beings, despite me being free and they are not. We all want the same things; we want compassion and understanding. It’s easy to think they don’t deserve it, but we are all made of the same stuff. The world would be a better place if we could all extend a little more compassion.
How was the art teaching received at San Quentin State?
I’m part of seven teachers and we go in different days of the week. There’s also a writer, poet, musician; I teach 3D art.
What would you say to people who say prison is for punishment and not for activities like art and recreation?
I don’t believe that punishment works. I think we need to be looking at why people commit these crimes, what happened in their past that led them to where they are now. The only way to begin rehabilitation is to look at that, and go from there. A lot of people don’t have life sentences and are coming out. So, if you don’t confront it, it will happen again.
Do you see art as a form of therapy and transformation?
I’m not trained as an art therapist, but I do think art is therapeutic and can benefit people. In general, learning to express themselves visually gives them a new vocabulary they didn’t realize they had; it becomes a tool for self-expression and that’s incredibly powerful. Artmaking is meditation. When people are at peace they want to spread that to other people.
What was it like working with Bobby Jean Evans Jr., Dennis Crookes, and Chanthon Bun?
For me, I’ve been honored and humbled. The project is intimate and about growing up and their childhoods. I feel so lucky they trust me enough. All three of them have been through a lot and are on the other side of it now and are trying to understand what happened so it doesn’t happen again.
Spaces from Yesterday
When: Nov. 17 through January 28, 2018.
Special events: Amy Ho lecture, 5:30 p.m. Nov. 14 at SDSU Campus, 5500 Campanile Dr., Student Services West, Room 1500, San Diego; and opening reception, 5 p.m. Nov. 17.
Where: SDSU Downtown Gallery, 725 W Broadway
Information: 619.501.6370 or art.sdsu.edu/sdsu-downtown-gallery