×

New Jersey Stage menu
New Jersey Stage home
New Jersey Stage search button

Search website


 

NEWS | FEATURES | PREVIEWS | EVENTS

Social Justice and The Quilts of Angola Prison

By Gary Wien, JerseyArts.com


originally published: 11/07/2019

Social Justice and The Quilts of Angola Prison

“I have not given up. I’m here and I want outta here, but, in the meantime, I will create.”

That’s the message Maureen Kelleher says she gets from the quilts created by prison inmates. While it may be surprising to learn that people serving life sentences are quilters, it’s a wonderful way for them to express their humanity. Kelleher, an artist, activist, and private investigator, is the curator of an exhibit showcasing quilts created by inmates who first began making quilts through their work as volunteers in the prison hospice project.

The exhibit, “The Social Justice Collaboration Quilts Project featuring the Quilts of Angola Prison,” showcases works created by free persons and lifers at the Louisiana State Penitentiary (aka Angola Prison). In addition to the quilts, the exhibit features music selected by Kelleher and narration by the artists. The exhibit is on display at Gallery Aferro in Newark until November 22nd.

“The music adds emotion, the narrations add uniqueness and reality, and a unique slice of life behind bars, and the thoughts and feelings of some who are doing life in a deep south prison,” explains Kelleher. “The narrations also add a connection to the men inside. They get to know their words are heard by free persons and we get to hear them talking. A bridge of communication has been created.”

The goals of the project include: teaching the world about the prison hospice program, supporting the project, connecting inside quilters with free quilters, showing the world how to collaborate with individuals in prison, giving a voice to inside and outside quilters’ political consciousness, and supporting art created behind prison walls.



 
Advertise with New Jersey Stage for $50-$100 per month, click here for info



“The quilts are ambassadors and the bridge between two worlds. Never has there been so much fabric that has said so much!” exclaims Kelleher.

Quilts are on display by Etienne, Maureen Kelleher, Kenya, Dr. Mutulu Shakur (the stepfather of the late Tupac Shakur), Sharif, Teresa, Zulu, and Ramsey Orta (the man who recorded the death of Eric Garner). Kelleher says their work shows that the men are creative, compassionate, and have not stopped being political, even after living in solitary for decades. She sees it as an honor that they trust her with their art.

Music includes “Mboya’s Midnight Cocktail,” which Delfeayo Marsalis wrote specifically for this project and is paired with the quilt, “Red White & Baldwin” by Kenya. The exhibit also includes music by Joan Baez, Donna the Buffalo, Sweetcrude, the venerable Robina Courtin, John Delafose and the Eunice Playboys, and Irma Thomas.

“I wanted a range of sounds and styles,” explains Kelleher. “The selections are all songs that I love. I also invite bands to join in if I have a good vibe from them. Joan Baez, for example: I knew she was a historically social justice committed musician, so I reached out to her and she gave the thumbs up. I did tell the guys inside about Irma Thomas and they were thrilled. They grew up with her songs and love her!”

An example of the narration is Sharif who created the “Harriet Tubman, Footsteps to Freedom” quilt. In his narration, he explains why he chose the colors, the theme, and his love of Harriet Tubman. Each quilter (both inside and outside prison) gets a free copy of Dr. Kate Clifford Larson’s biography, “Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman: Portrait of an American Hero.”

Social Justice and The Quilts of Angola PrisonKelleher’s work with inmates goes far beyond her connection with their artwork. She has been instrumental in helping to exonerate three men previously on Louisiana’s death row, in addition to assisting the renowned justice reform organization The Innocence Project on a non-DNA case to aid in the release of an innocent man with a life sentence.

Her entrance into this world came from an offer she could not refuse.

After graduating from the University of Florida with a B.A. in philosophy, Kelleher moved to New Orleans and held a number of odd jobs for a few years - everything from house painter to fry cook. She also did activist work with Amnesty International on the Free Gary Tyler case in a Louisiana town about 20 miles from New Orleans. Her work on the case caught the attention of someone who would help steer the direction of Kelleher's life.

"I was asked, out of the blue one day, by Gary Eldredge – one of the best criminal investigators in this country (and maybe the world) – if I wanted to work for him," recalls Kelleher. "I said yes immediately. I knew of his work and he came with a great recommendation. I knew I couldn't learn investigation in school and I knew that kind of offer came only once. So I said yes! I didn't choose homicide and death row investigation and civil rights/death in custody cases, those just happened to be his area, so they became mine.”

Social Justice and The Quilts of Angola PrisonKelleher first learned that inmates were creating quilts through a quick conversation with Gary Tyler back when he was still incarcerated. He knew that Kelleher was an artist, so he mentioned that he was making quilts. Years later, Kenya told her that they originally intended to sell quilts as a way to raise money for the prison’s hospice program. She had met Kenya through Tyler and the Angola Drama Club. Both Tyler and Kenya were members of the club, which Kelleher saw perform at LSU in Baton Rouge. Creativity and the arts are important ways for inmates to remain creative and feel alive.

In 2005, Kelleher was forced to evacuate New Orleans due to Hurricane Katrina. Five days later, she drove to Hoboken where she has lived ever since. Today, she works as a private investigator at the Legal Aid Society of NY and works in Manhattan. Her own artwork has had shows in New York City.

Kelleher curated “The Social Justice Collaboration Quilts Project featuring the Quilts of Angola Prison” and is also one of the “outside” quilters. She physically adds the batting, the backs and borders to the quilts; the traditional hand quilting and hand stitching is her handiwork.



 
Advertise with New Jersey Stage for $50-$100 per month, click here for info



“I’m very much drawn to the heavier topics of life, and my spirit veers toward the underdog. The topics of death, rape, the death penalty, slavery, racism, incest, mental illness, what does it mean to be alive? To die? etcetera, are evident in my work. And then there are the things in my life that I’ve never forgotten — events, a phrase or two, or a photo I’ve seen and could not get out of my mind.

I’ve drawn from my life and memories to cover the plywood and pallet. Tender strength all around me — the absurd, the goofy, the sad, the really sad, the interesting, the wonderful, the stuff that makes me feel like shit, the stuff that brings tears to my eyes, the stuff that scares me, the stuff that makes me feel good, the stuff that just is — waiting to be brought up and out.”

Social Justice and The Quilts of Angola PrisonYou can learn more about how Kelleher combines the world of private investigation and art on November 9th when Gallery Aferro presents “Ask the Curator with Maureen Kelleher.” The official event runs from 1:00pm to 2:00pm, but Kelleher says she plans to be there at noon and is open to any and all questions. She will talk about her own artwork, the quilts, the men inside, and her investigative work.

“I’m an open book,” adds Kelleher. “Folks can come and meet a real, live private investigator who happens to be connected to probably the most famous exoneration in the country (Curtis Kyles, Kyles v Whitley), off of Louisiana death row.”

Gallery Aferro promotes itself as a platform for the exchange of ideas in service of advancing human dignity and beauty, with a focus on visual arts as the vehicle. It is located at 73 Market Street in Newark, New Jersey. The gallery is open Wednesday through Saturday from noon to 6:00 p.m.



About the author: Gary Wien is a music journalist from Belmar, NJ. A three-time winner of Asbury Music’s Music Journalist of The Year, his writing and photographs have been seen in publications like Upstage Magazine, Backstreets Magazine, Gannett Newspapers, and Princeton Magazine. He is the also the author of two books: Beyond The Palace (about the history of rock music in Asbury Park) and Are You Listening? (his picks for the Top 100 Albums of 2001-2010 by New Jersey Artists) and is the publisher of New Jersey Stage magazine.

Content provided by Discover Jersey Arts, a project of the ArtPride New Jersey Foundation and New Jersey State Council on the Arts.









 



 

more in art


 


 


 


 




EVENT CALENDAR

ART | COMEDY | DANCE | MUSIC | THEATRE | COMMUNITY

ABBA the Concert

Saturday, October 23, 2021 @ 8:00pm
Mayo Performing Arts Center (MPAC)
100 South Street, Morristown, NJ 07960
category: music

Click here for full description

GIPSY KINGS FEATURING NICOLAS REYES WITH SPECIAL GUEST MIKAELA DAVIS

Saturday, October 23, 2021 @ 8:00pm
State Theatre New Jersey
15 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, NJ 08901
category: music

Click here for full description

The World Famous Glenn Miller Orchestra

Saturday, October 23, 2021 @ 5:00pm
Grunin Center
1 College Drive, Toms River, NJ 08754
category: music

Click here for full description

American Repertory Ballet presents Emergence

Saturday, October 23, 2021 @ 7:00pm
New Brunswick Performing Arts Center (NBPAC)
11 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, NJ 08901
category: dance

Click here for full description

WP Theatre: "Tape" by Stephen Belber

Saturday, October 23, 2021 @ 7:00pm
Hunziker Black Box Theatre
300 Pompton Rd, Wayne, NJ 07470
category: theatre

Click here for full description

Pilsener Haus & Biergarten Oktoberfest Round Two

Saturday, October 23, 2021 @ 2:00pm
Pilsener Haus & Biergarten
1422 Grand Street, Hoboken, NJ 07030
category: community

Click here for full description

JUDY COLLINS

Sunday, October 24, 2021 @ 7:00pm
Mayo Performing Arts Center (MPAC)
100 South Street, Morristown, NJ 07960
category: music

Click here for full description

American Repertory Ballet presents Emergence

Sunday, October 24, 2021 @ 2:00pm
New Brunswick Performing Arts Center (NBPAC)
11 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, NJ 08901
category: dance

Click here for full description

WP Theatre: "Tape" by Stephen Belber

Sunday, October 24, 2021 @ 2:00pm
Hunziker Black Box Theatre
300 Pompton Rd, Wayne, NJ 07470
category: theatre

Click here for full description

Jazz Room Series: Art Farmer Tribute Quintet - Archive Dedication

Sunday, October 24, 2021 @ 4:00pm
Shea Center for Performing Arts
300 Pompton Rd, Wayne, NJ 07470
category: music

Click here for full description

Pilsener Haus & Biergarten Oktoberfest Round Two

Sunday, October 24, 2021 @ 12:30pm
Pilsener Haus & Biergarten
1422 Grand Street, Hoboken, NJ 07030
category: community

Click here for full description

Chip Taylor: An Evening Of Song And Stories

Monday, October 25, 2021 @ 7:30pm
Lizzie Rose Outdoor Show
450 Ishmael Road, Tuckerton, NJ 08087
category: music

Click here for full description



For more event listings, click here


 

 

New Jersey Stage © 2021 by Wine Time Media, LLC | PO Box 140, Spring Lake, NJ 07762 | info@newjerseystage.com

Images used on this site have been sent to us from publicists, artists, and PR firms.
If there is a problem with the rights to any image, please contact us and we will look into the matter.

Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram



Art | Comedy | Dance | Film | Music | Theatre | Ad Rates | About Us | Pitch a Story | Links | Radio Shows