.Punching Out Prisons

We lit the fire and trusted the heat

Maria Gaspar uses jail bars, film and sculpture to challenge the prison industrial complex.

Chicago-based artist Maria Gaspar grew up a few blocks from the Cook County Jail, the largest single-site jail in the United States, with around 6,000 prisoners.

Gaspar uses visual art and sound to transform prisons and jails with the goal of creating a world without incarceration. Her first West Coast exhibition Compositions is at the UC Santa Cruz Institute for the Arts and Sciences (IAS) Gallery at 100 Panetta Ave. from September 26 to March 3, 2024. 

 GT: Tell me about Compositions

Maria Gaspar: Compositions includes glass casts of jail bars from Cook County Jail that I sourced. There’s video footage of a jail being dismantled that’s 60-hours-long. There are photographs and works on paper where I hole-punched images of jails. I basically punched out jails and prisons in Illinois. There will be community workshops where people can come and punch out images of California prisons and jails.

secure document shredding

GT: Where do you see your art within the larger abolition movement?

MG: I think about Ruth Wilson Gilmore, the Visualizing Abolition Project at the IAS, or Angela Davis and many others who’ve been working towards abolition for a very long time. I think about creativity and imagination. Art forms have historically been threatening to the status quo and it’s the first thing taken away in public schools. Art has this ability to radically transform who we are and how we interact with one another. 

I think about abolition as a durational process with different speeds. At times you need an urgent response. And sometimes it takes time to give yourself space to unpack and negotiate relationships. So much of it is about being kind. All of those things are antithetical to how we are pressured to function in a capitalist society. 

GT: How did growing up near the jail impact you?

MG: I think back to being a kid growing up on the west side of Chicago and seeing friends targeted by police. Many were also targeted to join the military. I’m first generation Mexican-American, so there’s a lot in my neighborhood we’ve experienced around immigrant detention, and we’re seeing that even more now. I visited the jail when I was part of a Scared Straight program. I had no idea what abolition was when I was that age! There was no conversation about what it meant to see people locked up in cages. I feel privileged to have the time to think through these ideas as an artist, but also as an educator and somebody who works in prisons. 


GT: You mentioned that you “sourced” the jail materials. How did that go? 

MG: The demolition of a part of the jail was happening and I was filming the building coming down. A judge came by and we talked. He was taking photographs of the demolition. He returned 20 minutes later and handed me a jail bar as a memento.

Like, “Here’s a gift.” It was strange to get gifted a jail bar that has confined people and taken their lives away. I wondered, “Should I be holding this?” At a certain point I thought, “Let’s transform these bars.” I found out that the guards were informally collecting some of the bricks and bars. They were placing these at the entry of the demolition site.

So, I walked over and said, “I’m an artist. Can I grab a couple?” I did this for a couple days and at a certain point there were no more materials. The demolition was still happening but I think there was this tension like, “What is she doing with these? She might be up to something.” I was able to collect 23 pieces of debris. 


GT: Tell me about the music in Compositions.

MG: I’ve brought 18 iron jail bars for James Gordon Williams and other musicians to create improvised sonic sculptures. My new title for this is We Lit the Fire and Trusted the Heat, which is from the autobiography of Angela Davis. I think about what sounds and voices have been heard through those jail bars. And how music can help those materials be freed, sonically. It’s transformative.

This story is dedicated to Tamario Smith who died at 21 in the Santa Cruz County Jail in 2020 due to overconsumption of water.


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