The community project provided a close up of prison life and revealed the power of art to inspire and transform.
When MIT freshman Sherry Xiao and MIT junior Helen Read signed up to participate in the House Of Correction Augmented Reality Mural Project, both had limited experience with the realities of prison life. Both students simply thought the IAP sounded like a cool, non-technical way to fulfill their January course requirement.
After working with inmates at the South Bay House of Correction in Boston, both students found their experience to be far more meaningful and rewarding than they initially anticipated.
Sherry and Helen sat down to compare their notes and experience in working with female inmates on the two-story tall mural.
Helen: I think there are a lot of negative perceptions around jail, especially in America. What was your impression of it, especially not being from America?
Sherry: In China, prison or jail isn’t visible at all. I have no idea where any jail is.
Helen: I don’t think it usually comes up much in America either.
Sherry: When I attended high school in America, we watched this documentary about preparing inmates for life after prison. Watching it made me realize that they’re people who often just made a mistake and have the ability to change.
What was your initial impression of the mural design?
Helen: At first it seemed a bit weird because it was so surreal. I had trouble trying to describe it to people.
Sherry: There’s a tree growing up from the water, a jellyfish jumping out of the frame, and eyes in the sky and water… Those images don’t usually go together, but in the design that the inmates came up with, it’s actually very pretty.
Helen: I’m happy to have some postcards of the mural now—it’s like, “Here, this is what I helped do for a whole month!” This project really allowed us to connect to the women we were working with at the Suffolk House of Corrections.
Sherry: We definitely got to form relationships with them and hear their stories and aspirations. I never thought this project would be so meaningful to the inmates until I talked to them and saw how much they put into it.
Helen: Did you feel like it was different coming into the jail on the first day versus the last few days?
Sherry: For sure. On the first day, everyone was a stranger, but by the last day we knew people’s personalities and strengths. There was Lesley, who always helped clean things at the sink, and Johanna, who is really talented at drawing; Farrah, who’s quiet but always supportive, and Ally, who sometimes needed encouragement with new tasks, but then did great at it.
Helen: I feel like the biggest lesson I got out of it was when I was painting the jellyfish with Johanna. It was scary at first. She was just like, “Be jelly!” and that really was what I needed to do. Just let go and paint and not worry.
Sherry: When we were assigned something new to experiment on, some of my teammates were worried about screwing up. I would be the one to take on the challenge and not be afraid to do it well the first time.
I never painted before this project, so painting was definitely a new thing that I learned. I had mostly worked on pencil or pen sketches, so working with colors was also a new experience.
Helen: You had your hand in lots of pies—you’re well-suited for it.
Sherry: Speaking of not worrying—not having our phones was really helpful in that we could focus on each other. I feel like that was one of the biggest lessons I learned—to focus on the present, not the future. A lot of the inmates know that they’ll be in jail for a while, but when we were painting, they could focus on the present.
“Team Leaf” worked on the night sky and the leaves; they worked on those leaves forever! I really respected that.
Helen: And don’t forget Yinka’s amazing work on the candle!
Sherry: Right! Definitely everyone contributed a lot to the mural. I would say without any one person on the team, this mural would not be as good as it is right now.
I’ll miss all the people we met there—I see them as friends now. I believe everyone is part of your life for a reason. We might not see them again, but they’re all a really important part of my memory in this experience.
Helen: I totally agree with that.
The House of Correction AR Mural Project is an ongoing collaboration between The Suffolk County Sheriff’s Department and several groups at MIT including Music and Theater Arts, The Borderline Mural Project, The Educational Justice Institute (TEJI), and Arts at MIT. The project was pioneered and produced by Co-director of TEJI Carole Cafferty, SCSD Teaching Artist Peggy Rambach and SCSD Director of Women’s Programing Christina Ruccio. The program was made possible through the leadership of Suffolk County Sheriff Steven W. Tompkins and Superintendent Yolanda Smith. The January painting workshop was directed and taught by Sara Brown, Senior Lecturer with MIT Music and Theater Arts. Organization and student engagement by Sam Magee, the Manager of Student Programs for the Arts at MIT. Students from The MIT Borderline Mural Project participated in the painting and AR development for the mural. The project was documented by Leon Yim.
Funding for this project was provided by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Office of the Vice Chancellor and The Council for the Arts at MIT.