“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.” The 12-foot giraffe created from letters of incarcerated individuals is dedicated to all those who experience schizophrenia and are locked up in solitary confinement because we are afraid of their different perspective of the world. I chose the giraffe because of its other-worldliness and because of Clarence – who I have been writing to for the past 10 years. While drawing the giraffes at the zoo, I thought of words Clarence once wrote to me from his solitary cell:
“I once measured myself and
I was nine distances upwards in height;
Nine widths in full circle;
Four points in surface straight
across the level top.
This I will extend once freed
And we will make a temple based upon you.”
(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.The camel relies on its internal water source to survive the desert harshness: The person living in solitary confinement depends upon heart. Two sets of correspondence are from Jerome and Billy: representing different responses to solitary confinement. Billy hung himself in his cell during the 2012 hunger strike in California and our correspondence extends from the year and half before until he hung himself. His depression could be felt in these letters. Jerome taught himself to read in solitary and writes to me, “I saw a Bright Light in learning.” My correspondence with Jerome extends over 10 years. There are years in which he is terribly depressed; other years not so bad.
“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.