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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Paint in the Can: Creating Art and Doing Gender in Prison

  • Author(s): Pecenco, Laura
  • Advisor(s): Blair-Loy, Mary
  • et al.

Scholars as well as the general public have pointed to the requirements of hypermasculinity within prisons, painting a picture of the inmate as a dangerous criminal. My dissertation analyzes how prison arts programs can reduce the hypermasculine imperative and create the possibility of a new and pro-social artist identity to emerge.

The overarching research question is: What social and individual factors create the possibility for gender-transgressive artistic creation in the hypermasculine prison environment? I examine three aspects of this question: how the inmates define their art and themselves in relation to their work, the art markets working around prison art, and the enactment of gender within the prison. I triangulate multiple methods: participant observation in a prison arts program that I created in a medium/maximum security prison in California; interviews with currently incarcerated artists; interviews with formerly incarcerated artists, who had all participated in arts programs in other prisons; interviews with prison arts program staff members and volunteers; and an analysis of works of art publically displayed in online galleries created by men incarcerated around the country. I concentrate on both the “doing,” or the process of creating art and performing gender, and the “done,” or the completed cultural objects.

Overall, I found that the arts studio provides for a safer environment within the prison, allowing inmates to drop the hypermasculine imperative that is present in more public areas of the prison. Through the process of “artistization,” they adopt an alternative artist identity, which encourages protecting the arts program and growing as an artist via sharing supplies, thoughts, and emotions across gender, racial, class, age, disability, sexual orientation, and other boundaries. The works created by the incarcerated artists represent a variety of iconography and media, incorporating traditionally feminized elements. I also address research ethics. Although human subjects protections are designed to prevent harm to research subjects, I argue that many of these blanket requirements result in further reducing the agency of vulnerable subjects. I conclude by offering policy suggestions.

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