How do you make a portrait of someone? Do you draw their face? Do you take a picture or use an existing one? Do you include their things in the picture? In her projects, Amy Elkins addresses the most basic questions of how one chooses to depict another. And more often than not she seems intent on not doing it alone. She asks the world to join in.
In Black is the Day, Black is the Night, Elkins interacts with prison inmates sentenced to the death penalty or life in prison. For this work she has chosen several ways of depicting the psychological world of the prisoners she has corresponded with. In a gallery or museum a viewer might see what looks like a murky landscape, a vague portrait made of pixels, words barely visible against a black canvas, a drawing of a boy holding an outdated cell phone to his ear, a photograph of concrete, or an empty envelope. Each piece is created in response to a story and informed by the memory of a former life.
In some of these pieces Elkins has used formulas
specific to each inmate, where the ratio of years spent in prison relative to their age determines the level of image loss or layer accumulation, allowing the story to dictate the mode of production. A seascape recalling
the impressionistic paintings of J. M. W. Turner was created in response to a man twenty-six years into a death row sentence who had described a childhood memory. In another work, barely visible words read, “The real may not equal the imagined.” No words could better define her project. They are from a poem written by a thirty-six-year-old man who has been in prison since the age of thirteen. He was retried as an adult at sixteen for attempting escape and was sentenced to life in solitary confinement without the possibility of parole.
After seeing a landscape that Elkins created, one prisoner wrote her to say, “I must admit to you that when I first received your letter two days ago I could not stop myself from feeling so overwhelmed by this longing of being in a place as lovely as that. I really do wish to convey my appreciation for you bringing these places to me right in my cell, where it makes my mind run wild.” Elkins implicitly asks if the idea of beauty in the form of memory and thought is more powerful than the actual experience of beauty. Her work depicts the mind of a dreamer.
In each cell an inmate eats, sleeps and pretty much exists for 22½ hours a day. The other 1½ hours you are allowed alone in a small concrete yard with cement walls of about 20 feet high and on top is a metal grate—and through that grate you are offered the only piece of the outside world for anyone that is placed in this environment. The usual blue sky, unless of course it’s raining.
– Freddy, 36, California
The degree of isolation her subjects experience is extreme. Of the prisoners that she has written to over the past several years, most have spent their time in a solitary 6 x 9 foot cell. Letters speak of a life where loss is equaled only by the endless time before them . . . unless the sentence of death is carried out; Elkins lost one of her pen pals in 2009 and another in 2012. Much like Truman Capote’s complex experience in losing the primary source of inspiration when Perry Smith was executed while Capote was writing In Cold Blood, Elkins likely cannot help but be affected by the unique dynamic of these relationships to her subjects.
I first encountered Elkins’s participatory style of portraiture in a series of images and text, created in 2006, of a member of her family who also happened to be in prison. Over the span of that family member’s captivity Elkins created self-portraits daily that she juxtaposed with the often mundane yet moving letters and quotes from phone calls she received from her imprisoned relative. The work seemed to function first as a double portrait before finally settling into a searing portrait of the inmate who could not be seen but was rendered in full by the way the letters came alive in dialogue with the self-portraits of Elkins.
She has said about her own role in the portrait making process, “Something in me keeps going after that moment that the photo is taken, keeps wanting to enter a person’s life and leave some sort of impression.”
In many ways Elkins yearns for higher stakes, more chance, danger, and involvement with all of the elements that are connected to that person.
I have often thought that attempting to make a unique work of art is a lot like attempting to break out of a prison; the prison is the past and all the art that has been made before. While you try to break out you begin to realize that the only way out is through the front door. So you must plan your break methodically by watching and knowing the routine of everyone. Amy Elkins is in the process of breaking out.
Amy Elkins was a Light Work Artist-in-Residence in June 2011. For more information on Elkins and her work, visit her website at www.amyelkins.com.
Bill Sullivan is an artist who lives and works in New York City. His work has been exhibited and published internationally.