Detroit-based artist-activist Ann Lewis arrived in Boston in February 2017 with a mission burning in her heart and a big idea percolating in her head. She wanted to bring greater awareness to the challenges of incarcerated women—an often-forgotten segment of the prison population—and in particular, support them as they transition out of prison and into successful lives. She also wanted to make a mark so bold it could not be ignored in Boston’s emerging street art scene.
“I want people to see the humanity of incarcerated women,” Lewis told Marcia Garcia of WBUR, Boston’s NPR station. And that she did with her four-story mural See Her, commissioned by Now + There on the side of a four-story building in Boston’s South End neighborhood.
During the mural’s Wrap Party, on July 18, the City of Boston proclaimed July 18, 2017 See Her Day in recognition of Lewis’ vision, Now + There, and the incarcerated women who collaborated with the artist to bring See Her to Boston.
What follows is an account of how one artist, one organization, and one artwork is creating ripples of change that continue to affect lives today.
Every movement starts with one bold idea.
We selected Lewis as the first commissioned artist in our Year of the Woman programming because of her commitment to motivating social change. Lewis proposed an idea that resonated with our mission of presenting work that challenges our biases and sparks conversation: she wanted to meet with incarcerated women transitioning out of prison, hear their stories, share practices for self-empowerment, and de-stigmatize their history. She wanted to encourage their belief in their potential. She wanted their stores to be heard. She wanted their faces to be seen.
We introduced Lewis to McGrath House, a re-entry facility run by non-profit, Community Resources for Justice (CRJ) where incarcerated women serve the final six months of their prison sentences. Together with Boston artist-educator Chanel Thervil and Curatorial Assistant Martina Tanga, Lewis developed a two-part collage workshop which used the power of creativity to address issues of self-worth, self-care, support, and positive female energy. 11 women (one Caucasian, five Latinas and five African-American) participated by their own choice and were paid for their time.
In response to the question of representation, Lewis told us and McGrath facilitators, “I am often challenged because I create art that incorporates the stories of people of color and inmates. I have not lived the struggle of being incarcerated and I was born with white skin and therefore privileged. It's imperative to my practice to use my privilege to dismantle it. I absolutely cannot ignore the ongoing abuse and marginalization of communities of color in this country and I choose to use the opportunities presented to me to draw attention to the issues of incarceration. I do this so that I, and the public, may better understand the challenges, so that we can then contribute to solutions. If the public is uneducated about an issue they have no motivation to engage and be part of the change we need.”
At the end of the workshops and after the group created trust and empathy, one woman, Laura Minot, impressed Lewis with her creative, entrepreneurial spirit. She later became the face of the project. As Lewis told WBUR’s TheArtery, “The first thing she said to me was, ‘Wow, you’re making a mural. Do you need an assistant? I need a job.’ Minot was motivated by a “sense of her responsibility to take care of her family,” including a son she had to leave behind when she was imprisoned.”
The site was specifically chosen.
It was important to Lewis that the mural be within walking distance of the McGrath House so current residents could see the completed mural as a constant reminder of their worth. And not just any blank wall would work. The house-like shape seen at the end of a classic Boston row home was attractive to Lewis for its symbolism. After a few attempts, we found a fitting site at 808 Tremont Street and willing partners with the property’s owners, The Community Builders, a non-profit group that develops affordable and mixed income housing. The parking lot adjacent to the wall, owned by the historic People’s Baptist Church of Boston where a committee had recently begun investigating solutions for beautifying the wall, made for easy access to paint the wall. The church enthusiastically came on board as another partner.
Even with owner and community support, we still needed to prove that the project could be reversible (or completely removed in 18 months or fewer) to adhere to the regulations of Boston’s Public Art and historic Landmarks Commissions. Comprehensive tests using an anti-graffiti material as a substrate proved that the work could be removed and the materials would not harm the exterior of 808 Tremont Street, a Massachusetts state landmark. The mural’s temporary nature would later cause Lewis a significant challenge.
Lewis got to work on a 60-foot boom lift on June 16 and worked for 11 days, often in 14-hour stretches to take advantage of long summer days. She and assistants Luis German Gomez Garcia-Herreros and Ryan Dias-Toppin painstakingly wheat pasted laser prints — at a scale of 36” wide and as long as 20’ long — to the wall through sweltering heat. “Big walls take stamina,” she wrote on Instagram.
As they worked, they answered questions and connected with neighbors, church attendees, and passersby. One particular neighbor, Sweets, stopped by every day to cheer Lewis on and offer treats. Four-year-old Deneisha came by almost daily with her father and gave them Barbie high-fives.
And then Mother Nature stepped in.
On June 27, with the imagery complete but not yet sealed from the elements, Lewis stood in front of a TV camera. Black clouds rolled in, portending hours of fierce winds and pounding rain. Later that night, Lewis would learn that the photographic elements of the mural were damaged. The anti-graffiti material had done its intended job, as the manufacturer guaranteed, and repelled paste and paper. It would all need to be redone.
But that did not stop Lewis. The women of McGrath gave her inspiration and a source of strength as she knew her challenges were trivial in comparison to those they faced: families not accepting them back, the stigma of having been in prison, and the difficulty of finding a stable job with a criminal record or felony conviction. Laura, Stephanie and other McGrath residents would stop by on their way to and from the gym shouting words of encouragement. Local vendors stepped up too. The Boston office of ARC Document Solutions generously donated reprints, Sunbelt Rentals extended the lift at no cost, and The Boston Center for the Arts became a second worksite during rainy days.
Today, a mural looms large in scale and impact.
Today, the work features a larger than life photograph of Laura Minot. Her face is partially obscured by an image of the light fixture McGrath residents see every day when entering their home. Minot’s gaze follows you — “she’s looking over her shoulder at me as if she’s wondering “who are you,” but also open. I really appreciated this guarded optimism,” Lewis told Big, Red & Shiny — and the surrounding glow of fluorescent red leaves you no other choice than to look. To see her. Below Minot in Lewis’ signature black-and-white geometric maze is a hidden word. It spells out CHOICE.
Nervous at first about the scale, Minot now feels proud. As she told the Boston Globe, “I was okay with it in the end because I’ll stand up for women all day long. It’s positive; it says choice.”
The weight and power of the mural’s purpose is now being realized. See Her is shining a spotlight on the challenges incarcerated women face and commanding the attention of citizens, politicians, advocates, and activists. It’s sparking conversations about what we can do as individuals and as a society to choose to accept and support incarcerated women as they reenter our communities.
Within days after celebrating the completion of the mural:
- The City of Boston reached out to N + T to connect the women of McGrath House with an exciting job training workshop specifically for women. (We can't wait to announce details!)
- Ann’s original 38”x42” See Her painting has been donated to McGrath House as a permanent reminder to current and future residents of their inherent worth.
- Now + There supporters and Wrap Party attendees are reaching out to McGrath to assist in resume writing.
- And in her remarks at the Wrap Party, Massachusetts Senator Chang-Diaz alluded to using the mural’s temporary duration as time clock and motivator to work for criminal justice improvements during her next legislative session.
See Her is now an unignorable part of Boston’s urban landscape at 808 Tremont Street. It is the first artwork in in our Year of the Woman programming and will remain up through October 2018. As Laura Mignot transitions out of prison she can look to the mural as a reminder of the choices she will face. All of us who pass by the mural with our freedom and privileges also have a choice: to see her and be part of creating solutions.