Works of art emphasizing humanity and growth painted by inmates of the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women were featured during the TROY-Tutwiler Garden Program Art Reception held at the International Arts Center on Jan. 27.
The TROY-Tutwiler Garden Program was created in 2019 after Dr. Sharon Everhardt, associate professor and Chair of the anthropology, sociology and criminology department, and Dr. Stephen Carmody, anthropology and archaeology associate professor, researched food allocation and prisons. The course spans over 15 weeks and teaches inmates about the fundamentals of gardening, horticulture and nutrition while giving them hands-on experience with growing a garden.
After two successful years, organizers broached the idea of offering art classes alongside the gardening course. Lead by art and design lecturer Dr. Kelly Berwager, the first painting course was held in the fall of 2021 and was the inspiration for the art exhibit, titled “Garden of Perseverance.”
“This exhibit is the first time that we’ve ever pulled our resources and worked together in a collaborative fashion, and I’m proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish in a short amount of time,” Everhardt said. “As an educator, one of the things that I was hoping that we would accomplish with this reception, and with this exhibit, is allowing people to see the incarcerated women we work with as human first. We want to showcase their work, but we also want to showcase and celebrate our new partnerships and unveil it to the world.”
Many of the art pieces on display featured plants, flowers or outdoor scenery in recognition of the gardening program. To emphasize the human aspect, recordings were made of the women speaking about their life experiences.
“I think this really got them thinking about the gardening program and what that’s really meant to them, and a lot of them showed it through their artist statements and their stories. You can see it by what they say about being able to paint and express themselves in different ways,” Berwager said. “Behind these artworks are people. Yes, their AIS (Alabama Institutional Serial) Number is there, but there is a person behind that number who created it, wrote their artist statement and spoke their voice into what’s been happing inside. They know what they’ve done and they know what most of society thinks of them, but they want you to see them as people.”
Shannon Hester, a former inmate at Tutwiler and a graduate of the Garden Program, was a happily married wife and mother with no prior record when her life unexpectedly turned upside down.
“I had a husband and family that cared for me deeply. I was a pampered wife living a blissful life. However, this all came to a devastating turn in 2006,” she said. “I lost my heart when, after four years, I became a widow. My father also passed after an illness. I was unable to deal with this blow. So, I ran. I ran from reality which included our home, responsibilities and my family. I could not cope with the grief, so I began to descend into addiction.”
After several years, Hester said she found herself in a situation she never imagined: in the wrong place, at the wrong time with the wrong people and facing jailtime for manslaughter.
“I was being carried along by events that ended with a 20 split three for manslaughter,” she said. “When I moved to Tutwiler, I had few expectations. I only wanted to keep my head down and serve my time. As I settled into a daily routine and met new people, I noticed that they were doing the same. My biggest concern was a section of the dorms that had no air conditioning—I’ll never forget how hot it was.”
Unsatisfied with simply waiting for her sentence to end, Hester decided to take advantage of the educational opportunities they were offered and enrolled in Ingram State Technical College. Despite obstacles and many reasons to get discouraged, Hester focused on achieving her goal and excelled in her classes. The next opportunity that came her way was a sign-up sheet for the Garden Program.
“One day in the spring, we saw free-world people walking around with guards. We had no idea what they were doing, but we were hoping for a pool… or a horseshoe pit or volleyball court. Soon after, a sign-up sheet for joining a gardening club was put up,” she said. “We signed up with no intention of going to the class being offered, but we all went into the class and listened to Dr. Everhardt explain the purpose and that it was a TROY program. It sounded interesting, and they were all very nice.
“A few of us stuck with it, even though, like school, we encountered difficulties. This is how our garden became the Garden of Perseverance. I’m so grateful for such a positive experience while being away from my loved ones. I feel like I gained an extended family—like mine—who loves and supports me, who wants me to succeed and who will never turn their back on me. Thank you for caring about me, and all of the ladies I had to leave behind. I am confident that as long as they have you, they will grow and bloom into their full potential.”
Hester will have the opportunity to continue to pursue her educational goals after being offered a one-class scholarship to TROY.
“This is an amazing program and one that exemplifies the mission of this University, which is to use hope and understanding to further people’s lives,” said Dr. Steven Taylor, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “I think the message the program itself sends, as well as this particular gesture, is that life can be made better through positive action, education and knowledge. Knowledge can improve your life.”
Dr. Elizabeth Mautz, Deputy Commissioner for Women’s Services Operations for ADOC, added, “This garden is a beautiful place. The work they’ve done there is incredible, and this is a fantastic expression of that work. I believe in education and how impowering it is, and I am very grateful that TROY is offering these opportunities for continued education.”
All of the art pieces on display were available for purchase, and Berwager said almost all of the paintings sold that night. One hundred percent of the proceeds from each sale went directly back to the artist.
The gardening program celebrated its third anniversary on Jan. 22, and longtime funding sources need to be secured to ensure its longevity. After an initial donation from the USDA, the program now relies solely on fundraising and donations.
“When we introduced the paint element, I have never felt that room so calm. The first painting session was just incredible because one of the things you can’t ever seem to get in prison is contentment, and it was quiet, very quiet,” Everhardt said. “This program would not have been possible without the support of people who care and offered encouragement. Just as many of us hope others find redeeming qualities in us, so do our incarcerated artists.”
To make a donation to the garden project or art classes, click here. Art class donations should be designated or will otherwise go to the garden program.