“In this time of great social reckoning, when more and more people recognize the deep impacts of structural racism, economic injustice, and mass incarceration, Merts’s body of work is both spotlight and lightning rod. His illuminating focus and dedication to making deeply personal and graciously compassionate images—of a creative practice that most people will never see or participate in—provides a window into a particular aspect of the prison experience. ” —Annie Buckley
Photographer Peter Merts spent over 15 years criss-crossing California and photographing various kinds of art classes in all 36 state prisons. His newest book, Ex Crucible: The Passion of Incarcerated Artists (Daylight Books), is an immersive collection of these images, along with essays, a map, and an interview excerpt with Merts sharing more of the project origins and context. All this combines to provide a view into the complex layers that inhabit not only the project as a whole, but the prison system, and the people contained within.
It is an ever-present dichotomy throughout these photographs: humans creating and connecting expressively and openly with creative mediums; and the prison facility backdrop that symbolizes different messaging, and often stereotypes in ways that can be dehumanizing.
The viewer sees photographs of people rehearsing Macbeth. In one photo, an artist is angling his oil painting up to light streaming through a window to capture a different view. Some images are of people in-process creating art, while others are more portrait in nature with the artist alongside their completed piece. The book is full of photographs of a rich array of artistic endeavors: drawing, painting, singing, acting, sculpting, dancing, playing musical instruments, spoken word and movement. There is also the repeating blue of the prison uniform.
In an interview with Michael Kirchoff, Merts shares his objectives as a photographer. Consistent with many artists, he cites learning about himself through the process of art making. But Merts also sees his photography as a vehicle for advocacy. This includes for the programs providing arts programming that addresses rehabilitative and mental health issues, and also to show a ‘human’ side to the stereotypes around prisoners themselves. Simply but powerfully put he says, “My goal is to illuminate their humanity.”
The book also includes essays by two incarcerated individuals who each speak to this aspect of Merts’s project. Rahsaan “New York” Thomas shares, “Peter’s pictures show incarcerated people as they are today, post-traumatic influences, and give us an opportunity to be seen as much more than ‘violent felons.’ Now, when my sons type their dad’s name into Google, pictures come up with me wearing a big, bright smile, accompanying the positive accomplishments reframing my past.”
Following the images from within the prison walls, is a subsection of photographs entitled “Prison Towns.” The prison locations span the length and width of California, and they are often placed in rural or small communities. Merts shares he would sometimes overnight, or explore the local areas, and his landscapes are absent of people yet filled with their presence. The juxtaposition of prison placement in these isolated regions operates on a symbolic as well as documentary level, and Merts’ inclusion of these images in this book reinforces this.
Of the book’s title, Merts notes, “It refers to an immutable stone container—in this case, a prison—as a place where intense energy refines and purifies a precious substance. The energy I’m thinking of is the experience of trauma and incarceration; the precious substance is artistic passion.”
About the Artist:
Peter Merts is a photographer residing in the San Francisco area. For decades he has focused on documenting the work of several arts-based non-profit (NGO) organizations. He is co-author of Paths of Discovery: Art Practice and Its Impact in California Prisons (2nd edition).
About the Contributors:
Annie Buckley is a multidisciplinary artist, writer, and educator working at the intersections of art and social justice. She is the founder and director of Prison Arts Collective (PAC), and is a professor in the School of Art + Design and director of the Institute for the Arts, Humanities, and Social Justice at San Diego State University.
Rahsaan “New York” Thomas, currently incarcerated at San Quentin State Prison, cohosts and coproduces the hit podcast Ear Hustle, which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and won a Dupont Award in 2020. He’s also a contributing writer for the Marshall Project, Current, and the San Quentin News.
Kevin D. Sawyer, currently incarcerated at San Quentin State Prison, is the associate editor for the San Quentin News and a member of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ). He has written numerous short stories, memoirs, essays, poems, and journals, and has been widely published. He was a 2019 PEN America Honorable Mention in nonfiction, a 2016 recipient of the James Aronson Award for community journalism, and part of the San Quentin News team that won SPJ’s 2014 James Madison Freedom of Information Award.
Michael Kirchoff is a Los Angeles based fine art, commercial, advertising, travel, and editorial photographer.
About the Publisher:
Daylight is a non-profit organization dedicated to Paths of Discovery : Art Practice and Its Impact in California Prisons publishing art and photography books. By exploring the documentary mode along with the more conceptual concerns of fine art, Daylight’s uniquely collectible publications work to revitalize the relationship between art, photography, and the world-at-large.
The Passion of Incarcerated Artists
Photographs and texts by Peter Merts
Contributions by Annie Buckley, Rahsaan “New York” Thomas, Kevin D. Sawyer and Michael Kirchoff
Published by Daylight
136 pages, 86 Color Photographs
8 x 10 inches
List Price: $45 US