Iowa City art exhibit highlights creativity while incarcerated


Chris Martin talks about how he made a jewelry box out of popsicle sticks as a gift for his mother to Megg Sparacino during a reception for the Art from the Inside Out art show at Public Space One, 538 S Gilbert St., in Iowa City, Iowa, on Friday, February 2, 2024. Martin was incarcerated at the time he made the box. He said it took him three to four months to make the box. The non-profit helps former inmates get settled into the community as they reenter society. The show features the work of people who have been incarcerated. The show is meant to celebrate the talent and work of the artists as well as promote public awareness of the humanity and resilience of incarcerated people. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Chris Martin talks about how he made a jewelry box out of popsicle sticks as a gift for his mother to Megg Sparacino during a reception for the Art from the Inside Out art show at Public Space One, 538 S. Gilbert St., in Iowa City on Feb. 2. Martin was incarcerated at the time he made the box, which he said took him three to four months to make. The show is meant to celebrate the talent and work of the artists as well as promote public awareness of the humanity and resilience of incarcerated people. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

Five drawings by Shawn Lurkens are displayed as part of the “Art from the Inside Out” art show in Iowa City, but — like Lurkens’ dealings with the criminal justice system — none of them are finished.

All of the artists whose art is displayed in the show — which runs through Feb. 16 at Public Space One in Iowa City — are people who have been or are still incarcerated in jails or prisons in Iowa. Lurkens spent about six months in jail in Linn County and is now living in a residential correctional facility.


Jeremy Mask of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, looks at drawings created with ink and wax by artist David Ockenfels during a reception for the Art from the Inside Out art show at Public Space One, 538 S Gilbert St., in Iowa City, Iowa, on Friday, February 2, 2024. Ockenfels created the works while incarcerated.The non-profit helps former inmates get settled into the community as they reenter society. The show features the work of people who have been incarcerated. The show is meant to celebrate the talent and work of the artists as well as promote public awareness of the humanity and resilience of incarcerated people. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Jeremy Mask of Cedar Rapids looks at drawings created with ink and wax by artist David Ockenfels during a reception for the Art from the Inside Out art show at Public Space One, 538 S Gilbert St., Iowa City, on Feb. 2. Ockenfels created the works while incarcerated. The show is meant to celebrate the talent and work of the artists as well as promote public awareness of the humanity and resilience of incarcerated people. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

Lurkens started drawing as a way to pass the time while he was in jail. He said it served as a form of meditation for him.

“It was the only way I could really relax while I was in jail,” Lurkens said. “I could get lost in it for hours.”

His pieces that are displayed in the free art show use symmetry and nature to explore abstract concepts like “Eternal Love” and “Spiritual Wisdom.” The pieces were originally drawn in black and white while he was in jail. He started to add color after he was released to the halfway house. There still is color missing, because Lurkens plans to finish his artwork after he finishes his stay at the residential facility.

“It’s kind of like my timeline … These pictures stayed locked up with me because I wasn’t out yet,” Lurkens said. “I’m just glad I can share them with people.”


An owl drawn in pen and colored pencil is one of the pieces by artist Shawn Lurkens during a reception for the Art from the Inside Out art show at Public Space One, 538 S Gilbert St., in Iowa City, Iowa, on Friday, February 2, 2024. The non-profit helps former inmates get settled into the community as they reenter society. The show features the work of people who have been incarcerated. The show is meant to celebrate the talent and work of the artists as well as promote public awareness of the humanity and resilience of incarcerated people. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
An owl drawn in pen and colored pencil is one of the pieces by artist Shawn Lurkens on dispaly during a reception for the Art from the Inside Out art show at Public Space One, 538 S Gilbert St., in Iowa City. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

“Art from the Inside Out” showcases art made using a variety of mediums, including poetry, painting, sculptures, pencil drawings and others. Many of the pieces demonstrate the resourcefulness of inmates to create beautiful art with limited resources.

Three pieces of art in the show — a basketball backboard dedicated to basketball player Kobe Bryant, a portrait of football player and coach Hayden Fry, and a jewelry box made for the artist’s mother — were made out of popsicle sticks by artist Chris Martin while he was in prison.


A memorial of Iowa Hawkeye football coaching legend Hayden Frye is seen during a reception for the Art from the Inside Out art show at Public Space One, 538 S Gilbert St., in Iowa City, Iowa, on Friday, February 2, 2024. Artist Chris Martin made the memorial for his stepfather who is a Frye fan. Fellow artist Pete Mendoza created the drawing of Frye. The non-profit helps former inmates get settled into the community as they reenter society. The show features the work of people who have been incarcerated. The show is meant to celebrate the talent and work of the artists as well as promote public awareness of the humanity and resilience of incarcerated people. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
A memorial of Iowa Hawkeye football coaching legend Hayden Fry is on exhibit in the Art from the Inside Out art show at Public Space One, 538 S Gilbert St., in Iowa City through Feb. 16. Artist Chris Martin made the memorial for his stepfather who is a Fry fan. Fellow artist Pete Mendoza created the drawing of Fry. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

Martin said he hopes to continue making wooden art, including another backboard dedicated to University of Iowa basketball player Caitlin Clark, but will be able to use a larger variety of materials now that he’s no longer in prison.

Making art while incarcerated, besides being a relaxing way to spend time and express oneself, also can be a way to barter for other supplies.


Ryan Housel of North Liberty, Iowa, looks at a memorial made from popsicle sticks by artist Chris Martin during a reception for the Art from the Inside Out art show at Public Space One, 538 S Gilbert St., in Iowa City, Iowa, on Friday, February 2, 2024. Martin was incarcerated at the time he made the memorial. The non-profit helps former inmates get settled into the community as they reenter society. The show features the work of people who have been incarcerated. The show is meant to celebrate the talent and work of the artists as well as promote public awareness of the humanity and resilience of incarcerated people. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Ryan Housel of North Liberty looks at a memorial made from popsicle sticks by artist Chris Martin during a reception for the Art from the Inside Out art show at Public Space One, 538 S Gilbert St., in Iowa City on Feb. 2. Martin was incarcerated at the time he made the memorial. The show is meant to celebrate the talent and work of the artists as well as promote public awareness of the humanity and resilience of incarcerated people. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

Doren Walker spent 15 years in prison and now volunteers with Inside Out, the inmate reentry nonprofit that is hosting the Iowa City art show. While he was incarcerated, he started a business of sorts in which he and some other inmates would make personalized greeting cards for other inmates to send to loved ones. He sold the cards for money or for commissary items, like hygiene products.

Walker also became an art collector while he was in prison, buying art from other inmates that he kept with him when he was released. He originally started collecting the art with the intent to sell it when he got out. Art can be bought for pretty cheap while incarcerated, since most jobs that inmates have don’t pay more than $1 per hour and money is a scarce commodity, so Walker figured he could turn a quick profit by selling art outside that he had bought at prison prices.

“There are a lot of very talented people in prison,” Walker said.

He ended up getting attached to the art he was collecting, and couldn’t bring himself to sell it after he finished his prison sentence. He had some support from friends and family and was able to get a job quickly after being released, so he didn’t need the money as much as he thought he would. He now has a collection of more than 100 art pieces by inmates, a few of which are included in the Inside Out show.

Collecting art from inmates can be trickier when you aren’t incarcerated yourself, which is why the process of putting together this show was started several months ago, according to Michelle Heinz, executive director of Inside Out.


A collection of drawings by artist Jesse Miller is seen during a reception for the Art from the Inside Out art show at Public Space One, 538 S Gilbert St., in Iowa City, Iowa, on Friday, February 2, 2024. The non-profit helps former inmates get settled into the community as they reenter society. The show features the work of people who have been incarcerated. The show is meant to celebrate the talent and work of the artists as well as promote public awareness of the humanity and resilience of incarcerated people. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
A collection of drawings by artist Jesse Miller is seen during a reception for the Art from the Inside Out art show at Public Space One, 538 S Gilbert St., in Iowa City, Iowa, on Friday, February 2, 2024. The non-profit helps former inmates get settled into the community as they reenter society. The show features the work of people who have been incarcerated. The show is meant to celebrate the talent and work of the artists as well as promote public awareness of the humanity and resilience of incarcerated people. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

Inside Out works with recently released individuals to help them get integrated back into society. It also works with people who are still incarcerated and will be released soon, to help them make connections that will make reentry into society a bit easier. Contact with people in prison is usually done through the mail and the prison email system. Any art that individuals still inside wanted to submit to the show had to be sent in the mail.

Everyone who submitted art to the show has a piece on display, although not all the pieces that were submitted were able to be included, Heinz said. Many of the artists are people who Inside Out has been working with, but some are current or former inmates who heard about the show from others and decided to submit their art as well.

Heinz said she feels the show highlights the creativity, resilience and resourcefulness of people who are incarcerated.

“There is much creativity, passion, and heart inside of our prisons and jails, and art shows like this reinforce the humanity of all impacted by the justice system,” Heinz said. “Art is an outlet for personal expression, but it is also a catalyst for community education and change.”

If you go

What: “Art from the Inside Out” art show

Where: Public Space One, 538 S Gilbert St., Iowa City, 52245

When: Through Feb. 16

Hours: 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday or by appointment (john@publicspaceone.com)

Cost: Free

Comments: (319) 398-8328; emily.andersen@thegazette.com

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