What does an inmate look like? Central Ohio art project aims to change perceptions

When Hattie Gilbert first saw the portrait of herself, she couldn’t believe who she was looking at.

“My first thought was, ‘That’s me?'” she said. “How is it that someone can put me in a picture and capture my energy?”

June 24, 2024; Marysville, Ohio, USA;  Hattie Gilbert listens during a group session at the Ohio Reformatory for Women where particpants reflected on their participation in the Marysville Women Art Project. Colorful scarves covered the plain tables of the conference room the group meets in.

Gilbert simply could not fathom that she was worthy of being painted. Or be seen as beautiful.

That’s because, for more than a decade, she has only been seen as an inmate.

Local artist Kirsta Benedetti said the work, produced through an initiative known as the Marysville Women’s Art Project, intends to give the public a different perspective of who these incarcerated women are.

“The focus of this project is not whether or not this person is guilty, whether or not they deserve their sentence, it’s just these people have dignity and value whether or not they’ve done something terrible.”

June 24, 2024; Marysville, Ohio, USA;  Local artist Kirsta Benedetti listens during a group session at the Ohio Reformatory for Women where particpants reflected on their participation in the Marysville Women Art Project.

What is the Marysville Women’s Art Project?

The Marysville Women’s Art Project began in 2022 as a continuation of an oral history project through the Columbus-based nonprofit organization We Amplify Voices (WAV), which was funded by the Ohio Humanities grant program. The project aimed to explore the unique stories of women serving extended sentences at the ORW.

“I believe that it would benefit the community and victims if they were still able to see the humanity in someone who has done great harm,” Benedetti said.

Benedetti, who focuses her artwork on advocating for marginalized communities, said that while getting to know these women, she felt inclined to allow imprisoned women to tell their stories as humans instead of as criminals.

“The minute somebody is painted, they are very important and seen as very valuable, so I have decided to be really conscious of who I paint,” Benedetti said.

And she’s not alone. Gilbert is one of 15 women at the Ohio Reformatory for Women (ORW) who were drawn in a self-portrait for a program known as the Marysville Women’s Art Project, led by local artist Kirsta Benedetti and co-facilitator Carrie Fletemeyer.

June 24, 2024; Marysville, Ohio, USA;  Artist Kirsta Benedetti covers tables with colorful scarves in the conference room where the Marysville Women Art Project group meets at the Ohio Reformatory for Women.

While curating the portraits—each taking two weeks— allowing the women to share their stories through journal prompts, Benedetti said she realized how much communities could benefit from understanding a different side of these women.

“We, on the outside, need to change the way we see people on the inside,” she said. “Otherwise, it’s pointless because when they come out, we will never let them change even if they want to.”

The prison held an exhibition titled “Where life is precious, life is precious” on May 15, which included more than 100 people from the community. Others were some of the women’s family members and fellow inmates.

“To be given a different perspective to the public, that’s positive and uplifting and brings us out of our comfort zone and allow us to open up as a group, I think there’s something very special about that,” said Mindie Stanifer, 45, one of the women in the ORW.

June 24, 2024; Marysville, Ohio, USA;  Colorful scarves cover the plain tables of the conference room the Marysville Women Art Project group meets.

Community members like Ron VanHorn, 53, of Circleville, said the initially daunting experience of interacting with imprisoned women became an experience in which he could interact with people who seemed more like neighbors. 

“You kind of go in with this preconceived idea these must be horrible people, and you’re met with just the opposite,” he said. “I came away saying, ‘It’s not just a person that’s in prison.'”

VanHorn said he chose to attend the exhibit — after being invited by Benedetti — because he believes it is important for people to better understand the women imprisoned in their communities.

“As I was looking at the pictures and reading through stories, I was thinking this could be my mom or a friend,” VanHorn said. “I guess when you can take the time to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, you can find a common ground.”

The ORW is the largest female prison in Ohio, according to Tara Nicle, the correction warden assistant. It holds approximately 2,300 women, 200 of whom are currently serving life sentences. In recent years, the prison began shifting its focus to better focus on trauma-informed care — programming like the Marysville Women’s Art Project falls into the category of promoting wellbeing and facilitating personal growth.

The portraits, along with the booklets, including short biographies of the women, will be on display at the Franklinton Arts District from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. on October 11.

Who are these Marysville women?

On paper, the women serving long sentences at ORW have a pretty ugly image. Society has written them off as monsters for the lives they’ve ruined — or even taken.

These women know every day in prison is a constant reminder of what they have done.

These women also know they are more than their offense. And with time, therapy and programs like the Marysville Women’s Art Project, those who have healed are committed to changing the narrative of what imprisonment means.

Hattie Gilbert, 36, is serving a 41-year sentence for attempted murder and other charges

I can be comfortable in my own skin for who I am, not this collar, not my number not my crime.”

Gilbert has been incarcerated for 16 years.

Hattie Gilbert, 36, is incarcerated at the Ohio Reformatory for Women. She spoke June 24 about her recent participation in the Marysville Women Art Project.

She also became involved through the previous Life Stories project. Gilbert said the biggest thing she’s learned in prison was how little she knew about the power of human interactions. With time, she said art has become a tool to help her grow.

“I’ve never had peace about my time,” Gilbert said. “When you have a lot of time, you can’t fathom it, and so art has been kind of my therapy.”

Hattie said before changing the narrative about society, it was important for her and women like her to change the narratives they often hear and think about themselves.

“You think about whatever culture has told you a person behind bars is like,” she said. “But then you realize they’ve been hurt and went through some of the things you did.”

Hattie said being asked questions like ‘When was the last time you felt beautiful’ during the program made her realize how little she thought of herself.

“I had to realize that I’m worthy to live life because the shame and the guilt is hard when you have good intentions or you’re not a horrible person, but you make a very horrible decision that ruins lives,” she said. “However, art was kind of the salt that helped that wound heal.”

Gilbert is grateful for the new perspective she has.

“I understand because of television why people think the way they do about the prison environment, but in this particular environment, it’s all about growth,” she said. “And I don’t think I would have gotten to this place had it not been for this opportunity.”

Mindie Stanifer, 45, is serving an 18-year sentence for involuntary manslaughter and other charges

“In the free world I was in prison and in prison I feel free.”

Mindie Stanifer, 43, is incarcerated at the Ohio Reformatory for Women. She spoke June 24 about her recent participation in the Marysville Women Art Project.

Stanifer has been incarcerated for eight years.

She became involved in the Marysville Women’s Art Project through her participation in other activities, like setting up decorations for the Horizon Prison Initiative graduation.

Stanifer said she saw the opportunity to be creative as a chance to learn more about herself — something her drug use prevented her from doing. She hopes this project will encourage people to be more open-minded about the trials of addiction.

“A lot of us will not be here forever. We’re going to get out, we’re going to be your neighbor, we’re going to work next to you, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing,” she said. “A lot of the ladies here have put in a lot of work to overcome addictions, and poverty, and I think as a society, it is more beneficial to uplift one another rather than hold people back from their past.”

Heather Matthews, 52, is serving a life sentence for murder and other charges

I am so over that definition of who I was. I am who I am today.”

June 24, 2024; Columbus, Ohio, USA;  Heather Matthews, 52, is incarcerated at the Ohio Reformatory for Women. She spoke about her recent participation in the Marysville Women Art Project.

Matthews has been incarcerated for 31 years.

She became well-established in the prison as a mentor to others and a frequent participant in programs like WAV’s Life Stories project. Matthews said being able to choose which part of her journey she wanted to share with the community felt liberating.

“People got to see us for who we are,” she said.

Matthews not only touched the hearts of many from the community with her display of growth and progress in becoming a Stephen Minister, but she found importance in getting to know a person for who they are now, rather than who they were in the past.

Matthews said her goal in this project was to share with people that although incarceration will always be a part of who she is, it is not the full picture.

“I am here for the rest of my life, and it’s always been a part of me because it was so out there, and everybody knew what I was here for,” Matthews said. “Being a part of that project made me feel that doesn’t define me.”

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