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Friday September 1, 2000

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New student-run gallery opens tonight

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Owners Lee Street, left, Kate Street, Jaime Chandler, Megan Aker, and Joel Meltzer stand in front of an exhibit at the Carbonbase Gallery yesterday afternoon. The gallery features art from prisoners all over the United States.

By Phil Leckman

Arizona Daily Wildcat

First exhibit at Carbonbase gallery to showcase prisoners'

For many students, college allows little room for anything beyond class and the occasional pizza from Domino's. Bucking this stereotype, a group of artists - including UA and Pima Community College students - have created their own art gallery, set to open tonight.

Located downtown in a former warehouse and church, the new Carbonbase gallery is a collaboration between 7 young artists.

Carbonbase began as a group of close friends with a desire for studio space, said group member Kate Street, a University of Arizona English senior. High rent makes individual art studios "unattainable" for most young artists, she said.

The group - which also includes Pima Community College students Megan Aker and Joel Meltzer, UA students Lee Street, an art education senior, Jaime Chandler, a Latin American studies senior, and Albert Chamillard, a fine arts junior, and artist Danielle Mancuso - decided to rent the space as a group studio.

The Carbonbase artists originally planned to put on monthly shows of their own art and the work of other Tucson artists. The show opening today, though, with 72 pieces by 15 prison inmates from Arizona, Texas and elsewhere goes well beyond this modest vision.

The decision to do a show of prison art was mostly fate, sparked by an acquaintance of Chamillard, Lee Street said.

"Albert had a friend, a fellow artist, who was in prison," he said.

The two began exchanging pieces, and Chamillard's friend mentioned that many of his fellow inmates were also producing artwork.

Intrigued, Carbonbase contacted Prison Concerns and Outmates, two non-profit groups working with friends and families of inmates to address prison issues. With help from prisoners' spouses, families and other loved ones, the artists collected a large, diverse collection of artwork ranging from handmade quilts to oil paintings.

Thematically, the art ranges widely, from female nudes and portraits of celebrities to demonstrations of ethnic pride. Depictions of loved ones and scenes of everyday life are common, expressing a deep longing for the world outside prison walls. All the pieces contradict common stereotypes of prisoners as inhuman deviants.

The Carbonbase group is discovering that these stereotypes are hard to fight. Kate Street noted that the show has angered many people who assume that the inmates involved are rapists or serial killers.

In reality, said Aker, many of the inmate-artists are non-violent offenders, doing time because of mandatory minimum-sentence laws for drug possession.

"We didn't set out to make a big statement," she added, "but we've met awesome people who are trying to get things done (to help inmates retain their dignity)."

Assisting in this effort has become one of the major goals of the exhibition -as Mancuso said, the Carbonbase show will remind visitors that "prisoners are people too."

Carbonbase will take no commissions for this show. All proceeds will be returned to the imprisoned artists. In addition, the gallery is accepting donations for Books for Prisoners, an organization that sends reading material - particularly paperback novels - to those behind bars.

Kate Street said the Carbonbase artists hope the show will "help give prisoners their humanity back." A letter to the gallery from one of the show's artists has already given Carbonbase members an idea of how much the effort means to the prisoners involved.

"The slightest brush of encouragement" can be enough, the prisoner wrote, to help inmates "navigate beyond the stormy present toward a future...full of hope and meaning...I thank you from the far reaches of my soul."

Carbonbase is located at 101 W. 5th Street. The opening is tonight from 7 to 9 p.m., and the gallery can be reached at 903-2695.

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