French artist JR is telling the story of inmates at California Correctional Institution with Tehachapi, a one-of-a-kind art activation installed in the maximum security 4 facility’s recreation space.
Named after the prison’s town just two hours north of Los Angeles, Tehachapi was created with 338 strips of paper and captures the portraits and tales of CCI’s formerly incarcerated citizens, current inmates that are focused on rehabilitation and a number of prison staff — all of whom helped JR’s team in wheat pasting the work on the walls. The composited collage features 48 people looking upward and can only be seen either from above or via the artist’s custom app, JR:murals, allowing viewers to listen to each inmate tell their story by tapping on them in the digitized picture.
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Part 1/2 TEHACHAPI Maximum Security prison – I have always been interested in jails. After all, as canvas jails are just closed walls. I did a project a few years ago in Rikers Island and it was a fascinating experience because nothing happens in a prison, and when those who are there are confronted with something new, it quickly becomes a highlight. They invest so much energy in it that it gets very emotional. A friend called me recently to say that I could be granted access to a jail in California. At first, I thought it would be too much paperwork and constraints, but luckily someone who participated in The Chronicles of San Francisco facilitated the process. So, with Google Earth, I browsed all the 35 State prisons of California, and I chose Tehachapi without knowing it was a maximum security prison… I just thought that the yard and the surroundings would make a perfect image. The idea was to meet with men working on rehabilitation, and to also engage formerly incarcerated men, their family members, as well as the prison staff, and survivors of violent crimes. When I got there, I understood that most of these men were incarcerated when they were teenagers between 13 and 20 … I told them about my project and made it clear that I did not want to know what they had done. They had a trial, they have been sentenced and I am not their judge. Nevertheless, a couple of guys left because they felt that their presence would be embarrassing for their families or for the families of their victims. I was asked not to approach the guys too closely because they are not comfortable with interactions but when I got in, I couldn't refrain from looking at them in the eyes, shaking their hands, introducing myself and asking their names. Just because that’s what humans do. They were amazingly grateful for this… A number of them were in prison for life because of the three strikes law in California. ( Part 2 on next post ) #representjustice @cacorrections
According to JR, the idea of bringing his installation to a California correctional facility was brought up by a friend earlier this Fall. “A friend of mine asked me if I wanted to do something at this prison,” the artist explained to Artnet News, noting that the “inmates were incarcerated when they were kids—14,15” and will be in there “for life.” He adds, “Most of them haven’t killed anybody, they’re there because they had three strikes. I steal your phone, I steal your car and one felony, and I get life. Now they’ve changed that law, but those guys are still stuck in there.”
JR continues to say that Tehachapi gave a voice to the inmates locked in the system. “Who are the kinds of people who are in there?” he asked rhetorically. “I don’t make any judgments. I just listen to their story. Some spoke for 10 minutes, some spoke for 35. It was difficult but we met amazing people.”