Last October officials in
Sale worked with one inmate whose sentence was commuted in November after 27 years. Soon, he will be set free. Another in the group was recently given an execution date. If the
Sale is a multidisciplinary artist whose practice reaches into the community. He helped spearhead the creation of a new Certificate in Socially Engaged Practice, offered by the
For more than 10 years, Sale has explored the topic of incarceration and criminal justice systems. He received the most attention for his 2011 project "It's not just black and white" at the
"The project dared to use the visual imagery of incarceration and activate the art museum in a way that facilitated civic dialogue and conversations that weren't happening in this community," Sale says.
The distinctive striped uniforms, the pink underwear for men, the chain gangs comprised entirely of women or juveniles - these visuals represent complex social and political ideas, invoking different feelings in different people based on multiple and often conflicting viewpoints. Sale points out how rarely these varied perspectives can be voiced and negotiated in open public forums.
After the 2011 project, Sale continued his investigation into incarceration with projects in
Since the 1970s, the state of
To explore this issue, Sale sought approval to work as a volunteer teaching artist at the
One exercise involved writing down life goals and challenges, and then composing one's own obituary. This led to a series of collaborative, text-based artworks on paper - Life is Life - that the men hoped would evoke questions and reflection amongst those who are comfortable having them "locked up and the key thrown away."
In 2012, Sale began another project, focusing on a harsh punitive streak of the American criminal justice system, with deep roots in the American West. Working in
Sale describes a powerful moment on stage in the auditorium of the
"It was profound to hear how this family was negotiating the complexity of their lives. I felt honored to witness their exchange and to hear their stories of individual challenge and growth," Sale says.
The issues surrounding mass incarceration are more commonly in discussion today. But we largely overlook the impact of mass de-incarceration - that is, the re-entry of former prisoners back into society. Each week, more than 10,000 people are released from America's state and federal prisons. In
"It is undeniable that the race to incarcerate is having a profoundly negative effect on communities and families," Sale says. "Some argue that the U.S. is creating a prison class - a class of formerly incarcerated individuals who have lost the right to vote, who face steep barriers to employment or to finding a place to live."
In a 2012 event at the
Sale created this environment as a "social aesthetic investigation." In some ways, all parties were taken out of their comfort zone - the museum visitors, who might feel less safe after realizing who was with them in the room, and the former prisoners and their families, whose identities were now exposed. Sale created a temporary safe space for both groups that enabled a meaningful conversation.
"The 'othering' that one might imagine would take place that evening at the
The occasion also served as research for a future inquiry, in which Sale envisions a gathering of representatives from across the spectrum of criminal justice systems - from politicians and judges to ex-offenders and their families, to victims and faith-based service providers - coming together over time to build trust and new understandings.
"I often contemplate the capacity of art to help us all grapple with complex social problems that have no easy answers," Sale says.
Sale's projects around the criminal justice system are contrasted and connected in interesting ways to the other main current of his work - love.
In 2008, he created a project called "Love Buttons, Love Bites," in which writer and poet friends helped inscribe their musings about love onto tens of thousands of campaign-style buttons that were ultimately given away at music festivals and museum events. That project recently evolved into "Love for Love," a compilation of thoughts from "voices less heard" in a community, such as people at a homeless shelter, a refugee center and a troubled teens program. With the support of a small collective of slam poets in
When the exhibit traveled to
"As somebody who decides to participate or not in this project, you have to decide if you're OK writing your feelings of love in that space that has been designated by somebody with that death sentence," Sale says.
The task provoked reflection on life, death, love and freedom. For the inmates on death row, it was a welcomed opportunity to connect with people on the outside, people from the communities they used to be a part of.
Before "Love for Love" opened to the public, Sale invited young adults who had aged out of foster care and at-risk youth from a community organization to be the first to participate in this social experiment.
"When I first met with the men at
If there's a way to get people thinking about hope and possibilities for the future, writing about love isn't a bad place to start.
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