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Art in Prison

March 25, 2011

As you know, religion has been an on going theme in art. But have you thought about it in prison? Although closed since the 70’s, Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia housed some of the most dangerous inmates in its 142 years as an active Prison. You can take guided tours and learn the history of the prison but now, they are saving murals.

From In 1955, while Lester Smith was doing time in Lackawanna County Prison for armed robbery, he had a religious experience: He awoke with a desperate need to paint the crucifixion, and to immediately convert to Catholicism.

“He left behind such a tremendous evidence of that journey on the walls here that we think the public would like to see,” said Eastern State president Sally Elk.

When he was later transferred to Eastern State, the chaplain there asked him to paint murals in his office. Smith spent most of his one-year sentence painting his spiritual journey.

“They’re in terrible condition,” said Myers, who is with the conservation company Milner+Carr. “There’s a huge amount of loss. The room had been a ruin for a long time. They’re far from their original appearance. Twenty-five percent loss of the original murals, completely lost. Irretrievably lost.”

The murals show a passionate but untrained hand in the folk-art tradition. Leslie Johnson, his grand daughter, regards them with reverence: “He’s amazing,” she said.

These murals are now history for a prison that was 100% solitary confinement and I think it’s important for the prison to preserve it’s history. Although, it is costing over half a million for 23 murals!

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