Picture this: a family holiday, everybody feeling good, crowded together on the couch with a stack of photo albums, some old, some new. The pictures all have stories to tell, secrets to reveal, next steps to unfold. When I play through the new Google Cultural Exhibit on the Sing Sing program, my experience is a lot like looking though a family album on a virtual couch… but this album sings and moves – and the pictures are better.
The exhibit does a great job of hitting some high points and giving the visitor a true and accurate sense of how the program feels and functions. I was the lead teaching artist for the first four years of the program, so you can trust me on that. The men’s words and music and reflections are showcased and celebrated. Its beautiful to see these materials made available to the widest possible audience. As it was the work was rippling out into the world from behind the walls, to the men’s families or out into the larger community, but the online presence makes many more connections possible.
In the same way that a family album prompts us to remember and honor all the folks we see (and some we don’t see) there, this GCE makes me think of how many individuals have contributed to the success of this (ongoing, still evolving) program. After nine years of work this list is getting ungainly for a blog post… but if you read all the way to the end of this one, imagine that each artist named there brought the needed energy, expertise, artistry and heart to innumerable exchanges with the men. Some were formal (teaching a workshop on string instrument bowing; a lecture tracking Duke Ellington’s savvy use of media to change the public image of black musicians), and others spontaneous (While everyone is tuning up, could you take a look at this lyric with me? What’s the fingering for an Fm7b5 chord? How do you know which note in these arpeggios is the root of the chord?). The cumulative effect of all these conversations on the incarcerated participants and visitors has been amazing to witness. It is safe to say that everyone involved with the program has been changed by their experience, as I certainly was. Changed for the better, judging by our own reflections and reports: better informed about the history and current state of incarceration and rehabilitation; more in tune with the lives behind the walls that too often remain hidden and forgotten; better practitioners of our art forms, more able to connect with our audiences; better listeners, leaders, and collaborators.
Even a great photo album can’t tell every story. Most of the best and most important moments are recorded only by our eyes and hearts, far from the camera (and cameras are not exactly welcome at Sing Sing…) The stories included in the GCE are of course only a fraction of those that might have been shared. A possible remedy: if you ever have a chance to speak with any of the men who have re-entered the community, or with any of the Carnegie artists who’ve been inside, buttonhole them about what they experienced at Sing Sing. Get more of the story behind the story. And until then, check out our new family album and see what you think.
|ARTISTS AND ENSEMBLES
|Slavic Soul Party
|Toomai String Quartet
|Sospiro Wind Quintet
|Charlie Porter Jazz Quintet
|Lee Ann Westover
|Sarah Elizabeth Charles
|Brad Balliet & Claire Bryant
|Chris Washburne, Leo Traversa, Hector Martinez