Behind Bars / Beyond Bars

Oakland artist Amy Ho’s visionary collaborations with prison inmates

Meaghan Allen
Mar 8, 2017 · 16 min read

As you gaze at the arch, the inky blackness enchants you, the muted reflection becomes an ethereal haunting, and the red curves begin to elongate and gain depth. You find yourself facing a portal into the void. Absorbed, you begin to wonder if Amy Ho — the Bay Area artist behind this David Lynchian installation — has witnessed something from the other side, if maybe she has something expansive to share.

“Arch with Red”, Amy Ho

Overhead, in old-fashioned pub lettering, the words ‘Harrington-McInnis Co. Printers’ span the length of the small building in Oakland’s Chinatown district; the same words are painted in gold on the window, giving the building a worn, nostalgic feel. On either side of the black industrial front door are weather-worn wood benches surrounded by a slightly chaotic collection of potted succulents.

My nerves are on edge because I don’t know what to expect in meeting Amy Ho, who graduated from UC Berkeley’s Haas Business School while pursuing a double major in Studio Art and a minor in Political Economy, then went on to get her MFA in Studio Art at Mills College. I’m halfway through an email asking Amy how to enter the building when the door opens and she welcomes me in with a kind smile.

As I follow Amy up the back stairs to her studio, which is on the upper right hand side of the studio co-op space directly in front of where the stairs end, she begins our interview by apologizing that she doesn’t have a ‘real’ studio space to show me as her work doesn’t warrant a traditional studio: each project is modeled in miniature in her studio, and is constructed in full size at the gallery site. Though Ho’s art is abstract and ethereal, Amy Ho herself comes across immediately as down-to-earth. She is wearing well-worn denim jeans with holes on both knees, red snowflake socks, sneakers, and brown Kuhl jacket; she later tells me it’s laundry day after she catches herself constantly playing with the denim fray of her jeans during our interview.

There is no door to the studio space and no ceiling. Exposed pipes and beams provide for an open industrial feel that is not gentrified or mechanical but rather basic, barebones. The walls of her studio are white, and lining the foot of the walls are materials from past shows, model-making materials, and boxes of miscellaneous objects. What appears to be her main worktable, and possibly ‘workspace’, is set with a classic white desk lamp (think Pixar), a green architecture cutting board, and her laptop. Along the wall to the right are taped inspiration materials in a straight line at eye level: a cutout of ‘The Brain Versus the Mind’ from the New York Times this past July; two black and white photographs of spaces with drastic light; a retro, magazine-sized Star Trek poster; a glossy print of pine trees against a burgundy night sky dotted with pinpoint stars; a piece of cream colored knitted yarn; a playing card; and a few sketches.

Ho’s artwork is immersive and subtly complex. What appear to be simple open spaces with sharp lines or altered lighting are actually portals to other plains of perception, where our bodies themselves come to a new situational awareness in the room and world. This is because Ho’s main focus is space and the way that our bodies, minds, and memories interact with space. “Space is this thing that permeates all of our experiences; it shapes the way that we understand the world. All of our senses, like seeing and hearing and touch, even smell, involves space and things moving through space to us. So space is an integral basis for our understanding of this world.” Ho’s fascination with how our bodies understand space, and then how our conscious, or mental, side of ourselves understand space lends itself for highly original pieces that contemplate not just art as a medium for understanding, but ourselves as elements within that medium.

“Room with Yellow” (amymho.com)

Take her early work “Room with Yellow” (2012), an installation that is a projection of illusory space against a flat wall; the projected space doesn’t actually exist except through our visual perception. Ho considers “Room with Yellow” a “very classic piece” that is particularly representative of her work. She points out the crown molding of of the ‘real’ room in the lower right of the image, then moves her cursor over to the yellow sphere in the frame, which is in the realm of the projected imaginary space. Ho explains that “essentially, through projection a space is created where there is none, and there is the sense that the room is bigger than it actually is. Our bodies are tricked even though we know the extension is not real; our bodies believe one thing but maybe our minds know another. ” Through her art, Ho seeks to elicit this perplexing, perhaps unsettling, friction between these two modes of knowing — between the way we know the world through our mind, and the way we know the world through our body.

“Room with Yellow” also explores Ho’s fascination with the concept of time and how time passes through space. Cursor still hovering above the yellow orb, she shares, “This was actually a video and it was really slow. But there is a light coming through this square here and the light shifts a little bit — kind of imitating sunlight moving through a room, like a shadow moving as the sun moves across the sky.” She acknowledges the limits of the photograph — how it doesn’t quite capture the movement of time in the piece and makes the projected illusionary space appears less virtual. (A minute-long video on her website reveals the subtle, almost illusory crawl of the light across the wall.) But even in the semi-flattened 2-D image, you can see how Ho puts in play her main concerns: the difficulty in distinguishing between what is ‘real’ and what is illusory, and how we sense ourselves in the space of structured time versus the space of altered time. Yet there is still another layer to the projection, another complexity to how it spins together reality and illusion: it is not even a ‘real’ space at all, but a miniature model of space, an object the size of a shoebox.

The wonder of Ho’s work is how, with its many frames, it simultaneously clarifies and distorts how we experience space and reality. The miniature models that Ho makes from paper are exemplary of this fracturing of traditional framing because the models are more like objects than spaces due to their relationship to our bodies. But, as Ho suggests, when the photographs of the models are projected huge, we believe them to be an ‘actual’ space: “A lot of people think that these are photographs of real rooms, not small models. What I am really interested in is how these images were never actually spaces; they are only spaces in the way that we see them — we believe them to be real rooms because of what we imagine and understand a room or architecture to be.” The transfer from idea to object to projected image — an image that only appears to be space but is actually a void of nothing, something nonexistent — breaks the barriers of conceptualized space to become infinite, suggesting that anything is or can become space, and that it is only our awareness of the presentation of the illusory space that prevents the new plain from existing.

Gaping Interlude, (2014).

Ho uses basic architectural elements to suggest architecture, but not necessarily to create it. An example would be “‘Gaping Interlude”’ (2014), a piece where Ho asks, “ What is the minimum that we need to understand a space?” The installation has five sides — three walls, the floor, and the ceiling — and then there is the side we look through (think fourth wall in cinema or stage drama). Again, this installation is a deceptive extension of space into a projected model where the light filtering into the ‘room’ is pure, intense. The white square in the center of the image appears so solid it is almost otherworldy, obliterating as it does the crease between the floor and wall. The piece echoes ‘Afrum’ (1966) by James Turrell — member of the Light and Space group based in 1960s Los Angeles — who happens to be one of Amy’s artistic inspirations. Like the Light and Space artists, Ho in her work evokes a sense of presence, whether that presence is of the illusionary space or the viewer’s individual body within the collision of these alternate realities.

Ho does not think too much about light as a distinctive or defining element in her work, but rather as a medium or way to express her work about space. In “Gaping Interlude”, the projected model is being lit from two directions, from the front and from below, so the gaping white void is actually just an overexposed space of pure white light. The lighting generates a new sense of space—or as Ho says, “If you can light it in a believable way, then people will believe it.” What separates Ho from the much-lauded Light and Space group is her use of film and projection, not simply the mediums of light and space. By building these models and projecting their pseudo-space, Ho allows her viewers to enter different dimensions where the relationships between space, body, and time are not concrete but fluid, metamorphic. It is this sense of possibility that infuses Amy’s more recent, collaborative work with prison inmates on their memories of life outside prison, life before and beyond bars.

For the past four years, Ho has taught art at San Quentin Prison for the San Quentin State Prison Open Studios art class. Beginning as a volunteer, Ho was hired as an art teacher a little over a year ago when the prison received funding from the California Arts Council for the Arts-In-Corrections program. Every week for the past four years, Ho has worked side by side in an open studio with the inmates — though she’s long past seeing them primarily as inmates. (In conversation she refers to them, collectively, as “the men”.) She knows about their kids, their families, their significant others waiting outside for them. And she’s discovered how these men keep themselves alive in prison through the stories they tell: “it feels like when they tell you these stories they happened yesterday, but they didn’t happen yesterday. Some of these men have been inside for twenty, thirty, forty years, so these things didn’t just happen yesterday but decades ago. They tell these stories over and over again as a way to keep themselves alive; there is this specialness to these memories that I think people outside take for granted. So as an artist, I really wanted to find a way to share these stories with the world outside through art.”

The solution Ho discovered is her “Spaces From Yesterday” installation series, an individual art project outside her course at San Quentin that will ultimately be a five- or six-piece series made in collaboration with men whom she knows well. In “Spaces from Yesterday”, Ho will recreate the memories of a particular space alongside a piece of original artwork depicting the same space by the inmate whose life and memory the space originates. So far, she has completed two segments, “The Garage” and “‘The Hallway,” the latter of which was on display at the Royal Nonesuch Gallery in Oakland this past fall.

The most recent piece, “The Hallway,” was made in collaboration with a former inmate, Dennis Crookes, who was released thanks to the repeal of the Three Strikes law. The space Dennis chose to focus on is his childhood home in Rhode Island, and in particular the hallway where he and his sister would sneak late at night to play chess, Go Fish, and checkers after their mother went to sleep. Amy and Dennis actually began the collaboration when Dennis was still in San Quentin, but when he found out he was being released, Dennis told Amy he wanted to paint a large canvas, something not possible in prison. As soon as he was released, Dennis bought a giant canvas, and that canvas is the painting in the installation, a work that recalls Edward Hopper in its subject, color, and its use of light and shadow to evoke a mood of childhood nostalgia.

While Dennis’s piece is representational, Ho’s rendition is surreal: a minimalist constructed hallway where the walls are exposed frames covered in slightly transparent cloth printed to look like woodgrain, the purpose of which was to be evocative of the way memories are not whole recreations but only fragments. Ho’s intention was not to reproduce the space exactly like it really was “because it still exists. His mother still lives there. If I really wanted to I could take a whole group of people over to Rhode Island and show them the space in person. But I was more interested in exploring what it meant to have a memory of a place rather than the space itself.” Side by side, the two pieces complement each other. As a perceptive friend suggested to Ho, Dennis’s piece feels like a memory but hers feels like a dream—an insight that makes sense considering that Dennis’s piece is an actual memory (it is his space and he has this particular idea of it) while Amy made hers by hearing stories about it and projecting her imagination. The pieces work together as two different modes of understanding, with memory and dream bouncing off one another as in a reflecting pool rather than a mirror.

Ho’s first collaboration in this series, “The Garage,” is completely different from Dennis’s. Made in collaboration with Bobby Dean Evans Jr. — who has been inside for 21 years —“The Garage” is also based on the memory of his childhood home that he grew up in over 20 years ago. Again, Ho’s approach to this piece is surrealistic, using transparent mesh fabric and projection based on a diagram Bobby drew for her of the garage. The main conceptual difference between the two pieces is layout: Ho’s is based on the real-life floor-plan whereas Bobby’s shows only was he wants share — the tools and motorcycle — lacking the furniture, water heater, and washer and dryer that is in Ho’s version.

The circumstances around the making of The Garage” are remarkable. It was constructed in two stages — first in San Quentin, and then through a complicated postal correspondence between Ho and Bobby. When Bobby started the work in San Quentin—one of only two prisons to have sustained arts programs since the 1970s—he made ingenious use of limited materials available to him. Everything in the collage features material he found inside the prison walls: the frame is made from pencils, stained with coffee and tea after having their yellow paint shaved off; the grass is dried fennel that grows in the yard at San Quentin; the garage-light on/off chain is made from a portion of a necklace he had. Amy thoughtfully remarks, “Out here I take materials for granted, but in there, you have to be really careful and save everything because you may be able to use it for something in the future.”

Although Bobby almost completed “‘The Garage”’ at San Quentin, its future was put in limbo when he was transferred to another prison, one without an art program. After the transfer, Bobby contacted Ho, who received permission to write letters to Bobby, allowing them to complete the piece via snail mail. But Ho didn’t anticipate that she was going to finish the piece for him. Bobby wrote Ho multiple letters describing where things should go—if she could find a certain type of rock to go in the corner, and so on. He hand-made the pearl-sized paper flowers and mailed them to Ho with directions on how to arrange them in the flowerbed. The entire process became a question of “How do you create artwork through letter writing?”—a question complicated by the difficulty of accurately translating artistic intention from transcribed memory to visual composition.

As a kid, Ho did “a ton of origami”, and it was origami that allowed her to connect at first with Bobby. Bobby was one of the first people she ever met who was interested in origami in the way she was—in the complex process of reduction and subtraction that transforms a single piece of flat paper into something three-dimensional. “In ‘The Garage,’ there is a mobile in my projection. I made it as an homage to one he made in class. The model mobile is actually right here.” She points to a tiny mobile taped to the desk lamp. The entire thing is maybe the size of a silver dollar. “Those cranes are so small it is kind of insane. They’re made out of a square centimeter of paper. But I had fun doing it.” Her smile is wide; there are undertones of awe, pride, and respect in her voice.

Ho is interested in these men not as prisoners but as people with desires, memories, interests, and stories, just like those of us fortunate to live on the outside. The purpose of “Spaces From Yesterday”, in Ho’s eyes, is to share these relationships and memories because of their exceptional ordinariness. “Most of us take these places for granted, thinking ‘Oh that was the moldy old garage’ or whatever. But for most of them [the inmates] they haven’t been to these places in a long time. When you enter prison, there is this sense that time stops and that when you come out, it starts again, but the time in between is sort of a monotonous gray zone. So those memories from before become really important, and that is what I am trying to show. These places are so ordinary but have become extraordinary through this experience.” The preoccupations of Ho’s art have, in some sense, come full circle, back to her first piece “Space with Yellow” with the emphasis of the interactions of self, space, and time. But this time, instead of delivering abstract and semi-meta pieces, Ho has turned more personal: her pieces with the inmates transcend yet another boundary by interacting with emotional feeling rather than only physical feeling. The focus has reverted back to the individual experience and understanding of that experience in a prescribed space.

Unlike prison art showings, where the art made inside the prison is exhibited as a group on the outside, Ho’s project attempts to focus on the individual person rather than throw them into the broad category of ‘Prison Art.’ Each of her installations is one person’s memory, one person’s experience, one person’s story. But while the art makes the experience of these individuals’ incarceration more palpable to the audience, it also allows for a kind of mental freedom for the prison-bound artists themselves. In one of his letters to Amy, Bobby wrote that when he was working on his piece he wasn’t in prison anymore; through his memory, he felt, he was escaping prison even though he couldn’t physically leave prison.

Working with these men on this project has also reconnected Ho to the wellsprings of her art. “When you go to school for art you can get so wrapped up in the ‘How do I make a career out of doing this?’ mentality— you’re always trying to promote your work and get it out there—that you almost forget, as a maker, the relationship to making. When the inmates make art, it is because it is meaningful to them. The process of making, the act of expressing oneself and being able to because of the fact that there are no rules in the art classroom, it’s the opposite of what prison is — full of rules. When in that room, it’s like they’re not in prison anymore; they are encouraged to think freely. Being inside really reminds me of why people make art, and why it is so important to make art.”

For Ho, making the work is animated by a concern for social justice as much as by a desire to elaborate philosophies of space, memory, and time. By taking the stories and experiences of people who have experienced the deepest lows, men who are now trying to come back from those dark narratives and redeem themselves from the worst of things, Ho is giving them a voice—or, at least, a way to represent what they’ve lost and are yet holding onto. It is her way of reflecting on what it means to be part of the prison system and what the criminal justice system is. By interacting with these men as people, not as objects or untouchable others, she re-humanizes them. Through her art and her compassion, she re-inspires the men and in a way gives them back their lives by planting the seeds of hope in a place where human dignity and individuality are often taken away.

As someone who wanted to be a death penalty activist at one point in her life, Ho has now taken a more subtly activist path. “When I really reflected on it, what I do as an art teacher has changed their day-to-day life, and I think that is much more important to me than something on a political level.” She mentions that of course there have been times where she has wanted to take action—for example, on the day when the guards decided to thoroughly search all the men before they came into the classroom. Ho is still torn by what happened — frustrated that she didn’t stop the searches from happening while recognizing that, if she would have protested, she would probably have been kicked out of the class. (She notes that the men would rather be searched and come to studio than not come.) Ho does care about political change; her way of approaching it, now, is through a set of more humble concrete actions — telling people what she knows about the prison system, walking into the classroom at San Quentin with a smile, and, of course, producing art in tandem with men who are incarcerated.

In the current intense political climate, where the future of not only these men but the entire nation is up in the air, Amy Ho’s work is more essential than ever. The aesthetics of her art, with its dynamic, multi-faceted associations regarding space, time, and memory, allow art and politics to work powerfully together through suggestion and immersion rather than analytical presentation and persuasion. Ho’s ability to break barriers and transcend various spaces, prejudices, stereotypes, and time through her enveloping art challenges her audiences to come together in new ways—to think about what it means to care for others and, as the common phrase goes, grant them their space.

“I forget who said this to me, but somebody once told me, ‘Artists are people who move through all the layers of society,’” she says, before hedging her statement with her typical modesty. “I think it’s kind of true.”

In the case of Amy Ho, this statement is completely true.

The Annex

Cultural dispatches from UC Berkeley

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