The Studio Museum in Harlem Takes its Art to a Correctional Facility

September 26, 2019 JIE Updates

Titus Kaphar, Jerome IV, 2014. Oil, gold leaf, and tar on wood panel, 10 × 7 × 1 in. (25.4 × 17.8 × 2.5 cm). The Studio Museum in Harlem; gift of Jack Shainman Gallery  2015.3.1

by Darryl Robertson 

Columbia University’s Justice-in-Education Initiative and The Studio Museum in Harlem joined forces last summer to encourage incarcerated men to express their trauma through the use of art. 

Over the course of four weeks, incarcerated men galvanized their personal narratives through creative means such as drawing, painting, and making collages. 

“We asked participants to identify and visually communicate what they value and celebrate about themselves and the messages they want to share with the people important to them and their wider community through art,” said Jennifer Harley, School and Educator Programs Coordinator at The Studio Museum. 

Nia I’am Smith, artist and educator, took on the rewarding task of teaching the men in the correctional facility. According to Smith, who also works at The Studio Museum in Harlem, the men were fully engaged in class discussions, curious to learn about acclaimed artists, and eager to share their artwork.   

“The men shared quilt pieces they created of places that are important to them in response in Faith Ringghold’s ‘Echos of Harlem,’ Smith recalled. “We had them assemble their individual pieces into a quilt on one of the tabletops. It was beautiful to see their conversation with one another, to see them engaged with each other’s artwork by asking questions like: ‘Who made this’ or ‘What’s the story behind this square?’ and be openly supportive, and complimentary of one another. That moment was powerful to me,” Smith said. 

Men studied artwork by Titus Kaphar, Barkley L. Hendricks, Romare Bearden, Norman Lewis, Sam Gilliam, and Faith Ringhold, all artists that are a part of The Studio Museum in Harlem’s exhibition Black Refractions: Highlights from The Studio Museum in Harlem.

When asked about the artwork chosen to teach to students, Smith said it was important that she chose works that were culturally, socially, and politically relevant.   

“I wanted the men to view work that specifically addressed issues relevant to their lives. In doing so, it was my goal to select work that connected to some part of the men’s past, present, and future,” Smith added. 

One piece that the men gravitated to was Titus Kapher’s ‘The Jerome Project,’ which is a collection of paintings of men with penetrating eyes, and their mouths covered by thick black coating. 

“‘The Jerome Project’ deeply resonated with the men,” Smith recalled. “In fact, one of the men who participated in the first group immediately shared that he thought the artwork was about men who had been incarcerated due to seeing their mouths covered. He shared this prior to being given any context about ‘The Jerome Project.’ Hearing that made me see how palpable this body of work was for these men, and how they immediately saw themselves and each other as individuals with a wide range of perspectives and talents that were to be explored and celebrated,” Smith said. 

The Studio Museum in Harlem’s collaboration with correctional facilities began in 2016, thanks to the help of Mia Ruyter, Education and Outreach Manager at Columbia University’s Heyman Center for the Humanities. 

Smith’s goal with the class was to create a comfortable intellectual and creative environment where men can express themselves. 

“Throughout the four weeks it was important to me that men saw, valued, heard themselves and others as individuals with a wide range of perspectives and talents,” Smith said. 

Smith added that museums should not be confined to physical spaces.

“I think museums have a responsibility to make their collections, programming, and resources available to a variety of audiences who may not be able to visit the space. Given that, it was important for me to be part of a partnership that modeled this,” Smith said. 

For more information about The Studio Museum in Harlem visit or by phone 212-864-4500.