From racial disparities to prison reform, social issues are tackled from many angles. But art may hold the key to the community enrichment needed to move forward on these issues.
Benny Gutierrez, a student from Chico State, co-founded the Greenhouse Studio and Gallery with Natalie Katsikas, a native of Chico and former classmate of Butte College, in response to the social injustices surrounding The death of George Floyd.
Greenhouse’s work goes beyond a single social issue; it gives the community a growing medium for a culture that could hopefully one day see the beginning of the fall of unjust social inequality.
Greenhouse raises awareness of issues like mass incarceration with the simple act of community enrichment, like helping amateur artists network to boost their careers.
To this past summer Prisoner Art Exhibition, Greenhouse has sold and promoted the artwork of many currently and formerly incarcerated artists trying to be seen by the world.
Formerly incarcerated guest speakers Henry Ortiz, Joaquin Jordan and Helene Ginter, who are now professionally employed, appeared to talk about the issues of mass incarceration in this country. Topics included: the justice system’s unfair targeting of people of color, the lack of reintegration opportunities for formerly incarcerated people, and alternative models of restorative justice that emphasize inclusion and accountability rather than justice. punishment and incarceration.
The show echoed some of Gutierrez’s life story that he shares through his work with art and academia. Like the show’s guest speakers, he was also incarcerated.
Gutierrez started in the English department at Butte College before majoring in journalism. He now plans to graduate in May 2022 with a major in humanities.
After graduating from Pleasant Valley High School in 2016, Katsikas earned a studio arts major from Butte College in 2020.
“I didn’t have a lot of direction,” Katsikas said, “and I remembered when I was a kid, I really loved art and I was constantly drawing and kind of wondering, ‘Why is this? I don’t do that anymore? ”
Gutierrez wrote for The Roadrunner, Butte College’s student newspaper, around the same time he founded the school’s Ascending Scholars program, part of a larger network now known as Rising scholars program, for formerly incarcerated students. He is also involved in Chico State’s Rebound Scholars program.
The Rebound Scholars program is still in its outreach phase, but will expand soon Project reboundThe publicly funded mission to reintegrate formerly incarcerated students into successful lives and careers.
In 2019, he wrote an article for the Roadrunner about the issues faced by formerly incarcerated students whose job applications were turned down by campus employers. The article highlighted the absurdity of students who try to reintegrate into educational institutions that are supposed to offer new opportunities but instead become obstacles.
Education helps reduce crime rates. A 2016 to study found a link between increased intergenerational educational pathways and decreased crime.
The Urban Institute found that arts education helps develop important skills for those at high risk in the justice system. They also reported that at-risk youth with high levels of artistic engagement achieved positive outcomes in areas like academic performance that preclude the involvement of the justice system.
The event raised over $1,000 for the California Three-Step Law Repeal Initiative, who could appear on the November 2022 ballot.
Gutierrez and Katsikas met in a gallery production class at Butte College. When last year’s quarantine pushed all campus activity to Zoom, Katsikas reached out to Gutierrez after the murder of George Floyd, to discuss the issue of white privilege. In response to this tragedy, they teamed up for their first art exhibition, the Black Lives Matter art exhibition.
Since monca and the 1078 Gallery closed last year, Gutierrez and Katsikas used what they learned in class to organize the event. They used Gutierrez’s backyard as a space, advertised via KZFR and Chico News & Review, and networked via social media. The show raised approximately $2,000 for the change color organization.
Katsikas said the show was an emotional and reassuring experience that a strong network of artists validates hope for social change. Another impact for her was the learning experience of hosting the show and engaging with the topics of the Black Lives Matter movement.
“The knowledge I took away from the show was huge,” she said. “I learned a lot from putting on an art exhibit and about black lives and all this stuff that I never really gave much time or thought to until things got really ugly. .”
Gutierrez said he was proud of the community and the artists who participated.
“At that time, I was still sanitizing my groceries,” he said. “I had no idea what was going on. No one did. But everyone came. There were sanitary stations everywhere. Everyone came in masks. Everyone was ready to do this. needed to appreciate art.
Gutierrez saw attending the event as an opportunity for his next move in life.
“I realized I had a knack for that – for organizing and bringing art together – and so that encouraged me to keep going,” he said. Then Greenhouse hosted the spring and summer art fairs.
Growing up in Modesto, Gutierrez had relationships with people, including family members, who had been incarcerated or in juvenile detention.
“It was almost inevitable that I would stumble upon their footsteps, and I did,” he said.
From inside the prison, Gutierrez began to forge a new path to raise awareness of the socio-economic issues associated with mass incarceration.
“I spent a lot of time there,” he said, “and changed my life there too.”
He began taking college classes and getting involved in support groups while incarcerated.
“Someone’s crime shouldn’t define them for the rest of their life,” Gutierrez said. “There is beauty in prison. There is beauty in pain, and it is reflected in this piece of art. He then pointed to a stunning, sold painting by an incarcerated artist that he was about to ship. “I mean, look at this!”
Gutierrez’s academic interests distanced him from the actions that once accompanied his past struggles with drug addiction. He said he replaced a life of crime with learning.
“I just wanted to be in an environment where learning was happening, positive things were happening, and I could just get involved,” he said.
PEN America, a nonprofit that intersects human rights and advancements in literature, awarded Gutierrez first place in fiction for its 2017 prison writing competition. He wrote the winning story, “The Padlockduring his incarceration. The short story is about a father who gets tired of dealing with high-risk business and begins to make new decisions about his future.
The 2017 Pembroke Taparelli Arts and Film Festival presented a short film for which Gutierrez wrote the screenplay. the movie, “Promises, promises…”, depicts the impact of criminal cycles on relationships.
“So I just started stacking those wins on the positive side,” he said.
No longer co-owner of Greenhouse, Katsikas is now charting her own path as an artist. She said art is really important to her health and well-being. Despite the powerful and motivating feeling of bringing the community together, Katsikas said she finally felt like she was on the right track with hers. art.
Gutierrez remains enthusiastic about his growing network of artists from Chico and beyond.
“It’s so cool to be able to help the starving artist take their stuff on a bigger scale to a wider audience,” he said.
For its seasonal art fairs, Greenhouse used Instagram to research a range of local artists. Gutierrez said he tries to draw as many eyes as possible to the work of participating artists for potential purchase. He loves watching local artists, who previously only knew each other online, meet and connect.
Although Gutierrez is a very busy student, he hopes to start planning more Greenhouse-sponsored events in the near future.
He is currently planning a night exhibition in March 2021 for Zak Elstein, creator of the jaw-dropping “shadow boxes” once on display at the Naked Lounge. He is also planning a February prisoner art exhibit in San Francisco.
Shae Pastrana can be reached at [email protected] or @Pineyfolk on Twitter.