Joel Chorny’s works as a public defender, and he wanted the project he created in Landmark’s Self-Expression and Leadership Program to make a difference in the community he served – not just for his clients, criminal defendants, but for their families. At the heart of his idea was a desire to alter the way society sees convicted felons, including how they see themselves.
Chorny’s first idea was a job fair, but then he saw a different way to fulfill his vision. What he came up with was Art with Conviction, based on showcasing artistic talents already possessed by convicted criminals. By showcasing their art, the shows would allow people to see them differently, and the feedback from those who saw it would allow the artists to see themselves newly as well.
Chorny originally envisioned an art show with most of the artists in attendance, but it didn’t work out that way. To his surprise, he got a lot more response from incarcerated artists. The solution came in having special milk cartons available for people to their responses on, which are then delivered to the artists in prison.
The artists were stunned by all the positive feedback, and Chorny himself was initially puzzled at their surprise.
“At first I thought it was modesty, the incredulity of the artists in respond to positive feedback,” he said. “But then I saw that they were genuinely shocked and surprised by all the praise.”
On the first night of the show, he did get to witness firsthand the reaction of one former felon artist who has able to be on hand. He began hesitant, then engaged, and by the end he was fully involved, enjoying interacting with people about his art.
Beyond the effect of the positive feedback upon the artists is the impact on artists’ families.
“I take it on myself to have the family be treated like VIPs,” said Chorny. “One artist thanked me for making the experience so special for his son. That was very rewarding.”
Three shows have now been held, with the first taking place in August. So far, the work of 32 artists have been displayed, most of whom are men and most of whom are still in prison.
The next show will be November 13th and 14th in Tucson, at the Fluxx Studio & Gallery. Eventually, Chorny plans to have shows around the country and eventually worldwide, but right now he is focusing on perfecting the events in Tucson so that he and his team can recreate them in other markets.
He has also started a small scholarship program for incarcerated artists. Just $20 to buy art supplies can make a huge difference.