Under a concrete sky

“Under a concrete sky,” a solo exhibition by Treacy Ziegler, runs from October 2 through August 8, 2021, at the Erie Art Museum Erie PA. This exhibition which expands two floors of the museum is a collection of life-size animal sculptures created from thousands of prisoners’ letters. Ziegler discovered the vast fluidity of animal metaphor in teaching art to prisoners – animals have been telling our stories for thousands of years. Crucial to our experience with animals is our ability to suspend moral judgment. Animals exist neither good or bad. Suspending moral judgment clears space for wonderment and in wonderment, primary prejudicial defenses are put aside. It is Ziegler’s hope that the exhibition will be experienced as wonderment. The letters creating these paper-cast sculptures are from over 8500 prisoners across the United States participating in the Prisoner Express project (affiliated with Cornell University) of which Ziegler is volunteer art director. PE receives over 20,000 prisoner letters annually and although every letter received is read and responded to by a PE staff, historically, it has been impossible to save the letters. Ziegler hopes to give visual expression to the emotion she reads in the prisoners’ letters; hope, regret, loneliness, appreciation.

“A dream is where we’ll meet.”  12-foot giraffe dedicated to those individuals incarcerated because of mental illness, paper cast from letters of prisoners.  (In background is “I’m reading them again, the ones you didn’t burn”, a 6-foot hawk; over the door and the beginning the installation, “When you wake you will have cake,” 42 lambs’ heads, paper cast from letters of prisoners)

“Without want or need, I turn inward and feed on my heart.” 6-foot camel dedicated to those individuals living in solitary confinement, paper cast from letters of prisoners.

“Why is the king thirsty, why is the donkey sad?” over-life size donkey (69x82x40″) paper cast from letters of prisoners.

“The horizon is a distant memory” installation 50-feet by 30-feet, paper cast from letters of prisoners. Presented as an aquarium, this installation comprises 12 trees topped with birds and 18 fish swimming among the trees. It is in memory of the lost horizon that cannot be found in prison.

 
“Night mutiny.” 20x40x7″- paper cast from letters of San Quentin death row prisoners. When a lawyer representing death row prisoners at San Quentin learned I was creating sculpture from the letters of prisoners, she wrote asking if I would make a sculpture of the correspondence she had with her clients on death row – it was too difficult to throw the letters away. I created this sculpture from those letters; “Night” representing the time of death for death row prisoners, and “mutiny” because the death penalty is a rebellion against the higher order of compassion. I chose the water buffalo because when I was in Nepal with a studio in a shrine, the remains of a sacrificed water buffalo were hung over the door.. I wondered if our death penalty presents a strange sanctity to our contextual beliefs of right and wrong? 
 
 
“Vanishing Sky,”  40x47x15, paper cast from prisoners’ letters. It is not unusual for me to receive letters from prisoners living in solitary confinement asking, “Treacy, when you go out today, look at the sky for me.” So many of the people in the PE program are living in solitary confinement for decades – some having not seen the sky for years.

 
“When you wake you will have cake.” 42 lambs’ heads installation extending 56 feet long. On hiking the Outer Hebrides, I came across a dead lamb with its eyes picked out. I was reminded of the lullaby sung by Odetta – “Way down yonder in the field, a wee little lamb lies, its eyes plucked out by the flies.” It is said to have been written by an enslaved mother whose baby died while she had to care for the white plantation owner’s baby; racism continues in and out of prison.
 
 
Sky becomes water and water is known by thirst”, paper cast from letters of prisoners/wood
detail, 65x20x20″.

In the last gallery of my exhibition thousands of prisoners’ letters hang on four walls. I had attempted to simulate this part of the exhibition in my studio to get a sense of what it would look like. I managed to hang about 50 letters on my studio wall before getting overwhelmed. I wanted to give order to the letters and I could find no order. Giving up, I sent the letters to the museum’s preparator Vance and asked him to present them as he saw fit. Vance read all the letters, crossing out names and addresses for privacy.
In seeing the final presentation of the letters at the museum, I felt as if I was standing in front of those walls filled with notices pleading for people missing in action – after a hurricane, 9/11. But in this case, these were not written by people seeking the missing; these were written by the missing. I realized there could be no order in the presentation; the letters resist being designer perfect.
Even though I have read every letter previously (sometimes reading the letter multiple times), I was pulled into reading them again. I could have stood in that gallery for hours just reading – letters stating, “I’m so lonely;'” “Hey, do you have any books to read?” “My mother was schizophrenic.” One particular letter struck me the first time I read it; it struck me again at the museum. The writer ended her letter with the words, “I am 24 years old doing life. I have been here for 10 years.”