- Untitled, Maggie Hazen with Columbia Collective, still from video
Art can be many things, but foremost it’s a vehicle for personal expression. For Columbia Collective, an arts group of young female and trans incarcerated artists, it’s a means of conveying creative viewpoints and often urgent messages that otherwise might never be seen. Three of the collective—who go by Marshmallow, Jay, and Juste-A—live at the Brookwood Secure Center for Youth just outside of Hudson. They have collaborated with artist Maggie Hazen, and an exhibition of their work, curated by Sofia Thieu—“Talking Back: Artists of the Columbia Collective”—is on view at Foreland Contemporary Arts Campus in Catskill through September 25.
The collective is named after the Columbia Secure Center for Girls, where the young artists were housed before it shut in 2021. Hazen spoke there about her artwork after a chance meeting with an Office of Children and Family Services Juvenile Justice employee in 2019, who bought her bike on Craigslist. Hazen was asked to do arts programming at the Center; during the pandemic, she wasn’t allowed inside, instead communicating by relaying a sketchbook with Marshmallow. “It wasn’t until Columbia Secure shut down in 2021 and the youth were transferred to Brookwood Secure Center for Youth next door that we formed the Columbia Collective in honor of the memory of the better days, better food, and better space at Columbia. I have been going in consistently every week since August of 2021,” says Hazen.
- Untitled, Jay, charcoal and colored pencil on paper, 8" x 10.75”
A visiting artist-in-residence at Bard College, Hazen first thought about conducting more traditional art classes before turning away from a rewards-based structure. Instead, “it functions on a model of equality and a shared communal space of making,” notes Hazen, who likened it to a Sip ‘n’ Paint format, without the wine. “So we just hang out, talk about life, be normal and make art together around a shared project goal, like an exhibition or publication.”
The artwork on view at Foreland covers a range of media, with an emphasis on drawing and 2D work, including imagery printed on fabric, like banners. Some of the art is harrowing, ranging from depictions of the facility, to surreal, nightmare-like scenes with manipulated body parts. Marshmallow gravitates toward eyeball motifs, with rainbows shooting out or dripping down. The Disposables, by Jay, depicts an endless sea of individuals rendered faceless by uniformly sporting sheets with cut-out eye holes and identical sneakers. Their bare arms, however, show scars and marks that convey each one’s unique, traumatic journey. Slashes of red enliven the pared-down black-and-white palette.
An array of intriguing papier mâche sculptures depicting everyday objects include a walkie talkie and a compelling wall clock set to 4 o’clock, by Juste-A, making you wonder about the time’s significance. Hazen, who is not compensated for this work, is working with Marshmallow on a video game and installation. A reading room in one of the galleries offers supplemental materials for in-depth exploration.
- Untitled, Marshmallow, graphite on paper, 8.25" x 10.75”
The exhibition resonates in the context of the sleek Foreland complex, which bills itself as “the first and only Catskill Kunsthalle.” Opening in July of 2022, the brick building was originally used to manufacture Civil War Union Army uniforms. About 30 artist’s studios sit atop the four galleries, a shared work space, and a food venue. The often raw and visceral content of “Talking Back” vibrates within the austere gallery space.
An informative, free booklet with text by curator Sofia Thieu describes the exhibition and details the history of juvenile detainment centers. A footnote stands out: “For many, the legalization of slavery through prison labor is common knowledge but to reprint, the US Constitutional Amendment XIII states: ‘Neither Slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime; whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.’” Not only have prisoners made clothing and goods to be sold, they have been leased as slave labor on land development projects in the growing region.
Juvenile detention is most likely not a common topic of thought for Hudson Valley dwellers. “Talking Back” raises many important questions on the subject, as well as an awareness that such centers are right nearby. Thieu posits, “Listening for love, humor, resurgence, and revolt, how do these artists help us imagine an alternative togetherness and decarcerated future?” See the exhibition and ponder the possibilities in the Collective’s work.