In Conversation: For Freedoms x The Writing on the Wall
Please join us on Monday, June 26 from 6-8pm for a conversation with Dr. Baz Dreisinger and artist Hank Willis Thomas, who conceived and developed the traveling installation The Writing on the Wall, and Michelle Woo, Co-founder of For Freedoms, on their work featured in “No Justice Without Love.”
The conversation, moderated by the exhibition’s guest curator Daisy Desrosiers, will explore the power of the collective to support transformative connection among artists. The panelists will discuss how collaboration and mutual support can amplify artists’ work by sparking creativity through interconnected artistic aims.
Dr. Dreisinger will be joined by two graduates of the Prison-to-College pipeline, a program that works to increase access to higher education for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals: Matthew Wilson and Devon Simmons, who created most of the graphic illustrations included in The Writing on the Wall. Mr. Incredible, another program graduate, will open the evening with a poetry reading.
About the speakers
Mr. Incredible (TWOTW) 8 years and 5 months of Prison and he’s broken every statistical narrative. Transcended his misdirected energy toward physical fitness to transform lives !! Brooklyn’s #1 Health Coach. A reborn poet through Prison-to- College Pipeline / which taught him how to use words to paint his feelings and perspective of the world.
Daisy Desrosiers is an interdisciplinary art historian and the current director and chief curator of Kenyon College’s Gund Gallery. Previously, she was a co-curator of the first MOCA Toronto Triennale, GTA21, and also served as the inaugural director of Artist Programs at the Lunder Institute for American Art at the Colby College Museum of Art. Earlier in her career, she was the inaugural Nicholas Fox Weber curatorial fellow with the Glucksman Museum in Cork, Ireland and a curatorial fellow at Brooklyn-based nonprofit, Art in General. This year she is also part of the Center of Curatorial Leadership (CCL) cohort of 2023. She contributed to the 2021 New Museum Triennial publication and As We Rise (Aperture, 2021). Desrosiers is currently working on a monographic publication about artist Tau Lewis with the National Gallery of Canada.
Dr. Baz Dreisinger (TWOTW) is the Founding Executive Director of Incarceration Nations Network, a global network that promotes prison reform and justice reimagining worldwide; a Professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York; the founder of John Jay’s groundbreaking Prison-to-College Pipeline program, which provides university-level education and reentry assistance to incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people throughout New York State; the author of the critically acclaimed book Incarceration Nations: A Journey to Justice in Prisons Around the World, named a notable book for 2016 by the Washington Post; and the director of Incarceration Nations: A Global Docuseries, which had its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival 2021. A 2018 Global Fulbright Scholar and current Fulbright Scholar Specialist, Dr. Baz speaks regularly about justice issues on international media and in myriad settings around the world, and is also a journalist who writes and produces for such outlets as The New York Times And National Public Radio (NPR).
Devon Simmons (TWOTW) is the Co-Founder and Associate Director of the Paralegal Pathways Initiative at Columbia Law School. He conceived the program in collaboration with students and faculty in pursuit of leveraging the talents of people who have gained legal skills while incarcerated. The program is designed to hone their skills in hopes of connecting them with employment opportunities in the legal field, while simultaneously enabling law students to challenge their assumptions and engage with formerly incarcerated people prior to entering a courtroom setting through Experiential Learning. He is a Global Atlantic Fellow, Salzburg Global Fellow, 2019 Soros Justice Fellow, and 2017 David Rockefeller Fund Fellow. In 2012, while incarcerated at Otisville Correctional Facility, he enrolled in John Jay College of Criminal Justice’s Prison-to-College Pipeline program. Soon after his release following 15 1/2 years of imprisonment, he obtained his AA (with Honors) from Hostos Community College becoming the first graduate of the program. Subsequently, he graduated summa cum laude from John Jay with a BS in Criminal Justice. As the International Ambassador for the Incarceration Nations Network, he has traveled to South Africa, Cuba, Jamaica and U.K. in an effort to help establish Prison-to-College Pipeline programs internationally. He is also a curator for the Writing on The Wall Installation.
Hank Willis Thomas (TWOTW and For Freedoms) is a conceptual artist widely known for his investigations of themes relating to mass media, identity, popular culture, and perspective. A trained photographer, the artist works across many disciplines and media, including sculpture, film, screen-printing, and installation. In his practice, Thomas often seeks out and utilizes recognizable icons from popular branding and marketing campaigns, encouraging viewers to question commercial consumer representation and the racial stereotypes it perpetuates.
He is also renowned for his public artworks, which always invite a form of viewer participation and contribution. Among his recent public projects is the large-scale bronze sculpture The Embrace (2023), unveiled on the Boston Common in January 2023. Thomas is the co-founder of For Freedoms, an artist-led organization that models and increases creative civic engagement. In 2022, For Freedoms received the National Art Award from Americans for the Arts, and it was awarded the ICP Infinity Award for New Media and Online Platform in 2017. In addition to For Freedoms, Thomas’s collaborative projects include Question Bridge: Black Males, In Search Of The Truth (The Truth Booth) and The Writing on the Wall.
The artist’s work has been exhibited at institutions throughout the United States and abroad.
He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a recipient of the Gordon Parks Foundation Fellowship; The Guggenheim Fellowship; the AIMIA | AGO Photography Prize; and the Soros Equality Fellowship, among other awards and honors.
Thomas earned a BFA from New York University in 1998 and an MA/MFA from the California College of the Arts in San Francisco in 2004. He has received honorary doctorates from the Maryland Institute of Art in Baltimore; the San Francisco Art Institute; and the Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts in Portland, Maine. The artist lives and works in Brooklyn, New York.
Matthew Wilson (TWOTW) is the first Prison-to-College Pipeline Program student to earn a Master’s Degree, studying Sociology at St. John’s University. His academic work focuses on race in media and also access to gainful employment for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people who have engaged in higher education programs has led to his work being published in the university’s Social Sciences departments E-zine. Matthew also earned a BA in Communication and Media Management from St. John’s in 2021, and an AA in Liberal Arts and Humanities with a focus in Film and Television in 2019. Matthew is a 2021 Jack Kent Cooke Graduate School Scholarship Winner, 2019 Jack Kent Cooke Undergrad Transfer Scholar, 2018 LaGuardia Mellon Humanities Fellow, and 2018 Victor Hasssine Award Winner. He also co-leads the New York Region of The Petey Greene Program as Division Manager since the Fall of 2021 where he supports adults and youth with high-quality academic tutoring support, enrollment, and advisement when they re-enter the community.
Michelle Woo (For Freedoms) is a cultural producer, art historian and curator based in Los Angeles. She is a Co-Founder of For Freedoms, an artist-run organization that models creative civic engagement for which she received a ICP Infinity Award in 2017 and a National Art Award in 2022. Her diverse role includes strategy and design of national campaigns, public art initiatives, exhibitions and programming. She also advises artists and organizations on business management and cultural strategy.
For Freedoms is an artist collective that centers art and creativity as a catalyst for transformative connection and collective liberation. By wielding the power of art, they aim to deepen and expand our capacity to interrogate what is and imagine what could be. Together, they seek infinite expansion.
Leading up to the 2016 elections in the United States, For Freedoms asked how we could center artists’ voices in public discourse, broaden what participation in democracy looks like, and initiate a larger conversation about the role of art in local, national, and global politics.
What began as a one-off campaign has now evolved into an ongoing movement. For Freedoms has since produced artworks and run nationwide campaigns timed to significant political elections: in 2018 we conducted the 50 State Initiative, named by TIME as the “largest creative collaboration in United States history” and in 2020 they launched the 2020 Awakening, activating artists, museums, schools, corporations and civic organizations in all 50 states, Puerto Rico, Washington, D.C., Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands and beyond.
For Freedoms has grown to become the largest community for creative civic engagement in the United States. They comprise thousands of artists and organizations working together to invite radical imagination and set the table for new national conversations.
For Freedoms maintains that if creativity is a core societal value, and if artists are at every table, new ideas are more likely to take hold. With that, we can build new systems that no longer rely on extractive or corrupt foundations but instead center love, care, and community. They are working toward a new economic model for art and culture while offering financial and education opportunities for artists.
Founded in 2016 by a coalition of artists, academics and organizers, including Hank Willis Thomas, Eric Gottesman, Michelle Woo, and Wyatt Gallery, For Freedoms continues to be artist-led and is dedicated to awakening a culture of listening, healing, and justice. They are invested in an infinite game— one where there are no winners versus losers, and one where the objective is for everyone to continue to play.
The Writing on the Wall is a shape-shifting, pop-up art installation made from writing by people in prison around the world, a partnership between Dr. Baz Dreisinger and the Incarceration Nations Network; the acclaimed visual artist Hank Willis Thomas; the nonprofit architecture firm MASS Design Group; the production team Openbox; and the creative agency Chemistry Creative. In an effort to center the words of those directly impacted at the heart of the fight for prison reimagining, the installation has been displayed in public spaces as a form of verbal and visual intrusion. Each debut of The Writing on the Wall is an event and ongoing campaign, coordinated in collaboration with local and global justice organizations and demanding that worldwide we must heed The Writing on the Wall: #DefundThePrisons and invest in communities and peace.
In myriad formats – as a pop-up in enclosed spaces, a collapsable booth and a series of light projections – The Writing on the Wall has thus far been exhibited in Detroit, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Miami, Washington DC, Columbus, and New York City on the High Line park, the most trafficked public park in the world.
The Writing on the Wall is a project of The Incarceration Nations Network (INN) a global network and think tank that supports, instigates and popularizes innovative prison reform efforts around the world. Their partners span every continent and more than 50 countries.