The Art of Survival, A Prison for Women Memorial Collective Exhibition, is a thought-provoking exhibition challenging any societal perceptions you have about Canada’s prison system. It highlights the artistic viewpoints of more than 30 local, national, and international artists and collectives of women currently or previously incarcerated in Canada. All works were either created inside institution walls, including the notorious Prison for Women (P4W), or outside while on parole.
The temporary exhibition is on display at the PumpHouse at 23 Ontario Street, in Kingston, from July 4th, 2023 until September 2nd, 2023. It supports the Prison for Women Memorial Collective’s (P4WMC) long-term project to create a memorial garden in front of P4W. The garden and exhibition aim to commemorate those who have lived and passed away in Canadian women’s prisons.
In addition to the P4WMC, the exhibition is also curated by Sheena Hoszko. Exhibition collaborators include the City of Kingston Heritage Services and the PumpHouse.
Kingston’s Prison for Women
Aside from being “Canada’s museum capital,” Kingston is also historically known as “Canada’s Penitentiary City.” Women prisoners were first sent to Kingston Penitentiary (KP) in 1835. In 1925 construction started across the street on the Prison for Women (P4W). The first women inmates arrived on January 24th, 1934. P4W was officially open.
For 60 years, P4W was the only federal prison for women in Canada. Even as a prison, it’s known for its adverse and severe conditions. Any woman sentenced to at least 2 years, served their time at P4W. A large portion of Indigenous inmates also comprised of the P4W population and indicated experiences of specifically violent treatment by prison staff. It wasn’t until 1995 that a formal Federal inquiry was launched after security footage of a cruel 1994 incident was leaked and broadcast. The inquiry exposed and denounced P4W for its inhumane and abusive conditions for inmates. The last inmate was transferred from P4W on May 8th, 2000 and its doors finally closed.
Tightwire, A P4W Zine
After reading the history of P4W and the intent of The Art of Survival upon entering, you will notice a window filled with pages from Tightwire. In 1970, a group of inmates at P4W started the zine. Each issue comprises of artwork, poetry, essays, reports, editorials, short stories, puzzles and jokes, news from other institutions, and more. Looking through the pages, you see the hard work put into the copies, which inmates made from scratch. During its run, it was important in getting the word out about P4W living conditions and inmate viewpoints—albeit through clever workarounds to avoid strict administrative censorship. Tightwire seized publication in 1993.
Copies of Tightwire are available for visitors to take home at the exhibition. Curators hope the continued dispersal of copies will continue amplifying the voices of those featured. Digital copies are also available on penalpress.com.
The Art of Survival, The Power and Beauty of Art
Gayle K. Horii, was one of the inmates of P4W. It’s her 1992 essay “The Art In/Of Survival,” (Journal of Prisoners on Prisons, Vol. 5, No. 2) which inspires this exhibition. Gayle writes about how art created by women in prison is a survival mechanism as much as it is to create something beautiful in an environment focused on deprivation. Reading Gayle’s words while surrounded by the exhibition’s works, only gives them more power and meaning.
As you walk through the exhibition, you see art as a means of self-expression and identity, community, healing, love, sisterhood, resilience, resistance, escapism, survival, and more. You are awe-struck by the passion and especially the creativity and innovation of inmates with particularly limited materials. Works include mixed media, found objects, paintings, a song, drawings, photographs, beadwork, poetry, video, textiles, and ceramics. Spotlights on the artwork and the high ceilings of the PumpHouse give you the light and space to take it all in.
Cathee Porter embraces art as a means of resistance along with identity in her work, HAHA (2020, Fraser Valley Institution). In the statement accompanying it, Cathee explains:
“These altered shirts can be found in most federal prisons designated for women. Since prisoners don’t have money, we must find creative ways to use the limited amount of clothes that we’re issued during our sentence. […] Women cannot change out their sizes unless they gain or lose at least 50 lbs. Women clearly want to switch things up and wear something different. Since lending, sharing, or giving gifts to other prisoners – such as clothing – is illegal, the most feasible option is to simply alter the prison-issued clothes provided to you. These shirts are cut into different designs and tye-dyed. The t-shirt is called HAHA, because the prison was charging people with destruction of government property if people altered their issued clothing…HAHA.”Cathee Porter on HAHA (2020), The Art of Survival
Another mesmerizing work is Handmade Beadwork (2020s, unknown) by Georgia Ward. Made from beads, crystal, pearls, sinew, beading thread and leather, Georgia’s one-of-a-kind and vibrantly coloured pieces embrace notions of individuality and sisterhood, as well as culture and escapism. In an accompanying statement, Georgia expresses:
“I don’t make art, I create pieces with people in mind, so it fits their personalities, that’s how my beading started. My creative ideas come from a native modern twist. […] When I was in prison, I didn’t do as much beading as most of the girls. I did enough that I had an idea but when I did, I loved the laughter and sisterhood that they had. I could see it was a stress release and a few minutes to get away in their own world and enjoy the togetherness.”Georgia Ward on Handmade Beadwork (2020s), The Art of Survival
In the case of The Art of Survival, the idea of art as therapy has never been truer!
Visit the PumpHouse Today!
The PumpHouse is in Kingston’s original waterworks building, one of the oldest in Canada. Museum visitors can travel back to the 19th century and explore the original steam pumps that first brought running water to the City. Visitors can also engage in programs, events, and temporary exhibitions like The Art of Survival, at this highly interactive museum for all ages.
Written by: Nicole Mulder, Kingston & Area Association of Museums
If you would like to learn more about the Museums, Art Galleries and Historic Sites of Kingston and the Area start by exploring the spaces around you!