Local Arts

A wrongfully jailed artist delivered a powerful message to Charlotte teens behind bars

The young men are just 16 and 17 — barely old enough to drive, not old enough to vote — but here they are in the Mecklenburg County Jail youth detention center, with fresh faces and very adult problems.

Sherrill Roland is standing before them. He’s a celebrated artist with a master’s degree and is one of the fall 2019 artists-in-residence at the McColl Center for Art + Innovation.

It seems unlikely, but he understands so much of what these 10 African American teens are going through. And he has devoted his life — and his art — to talking about the realities they are now living: life behind bars.

Roland, 35, an Asheville native, was a graduate art student at UNC Greensboro when he said he was wrongfully convicted of four misdemeanors in Washington, D.C., in 2013. He served 10 months and two weeks in the D.C. Central Detention Facility.

He won’t discuss the charges. But in 2016, he said, his conviction was overturned by the same judge who had convicted him and Roland was exonerated. The time he had spent as a prisoner had changed his life — and the focus of his art.

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Sherrill Roland, who’s an artist-in-residence at the McColl Center, met with about 10 youth inmates at the Mecklenburg County Detention facility, or Jail North, on Tuesday Oct. 9, 2019. Sherrill was wrongly convicted and spent more than 10 months in prison and his art is a reflection of his time behind bars and his transition back into society. John D. Simmons jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

While he was in jail, Roland missed his daughter being born and his grandmother’s death, and after leaving jail, he found he had developed a thick layer of distrust of the people around him. Paranoia from his time in jail made it hard to bond with his baby or even be in public spaces around strangers.

In 2016, he launched the Jumpsuit Project, a type of performance art where he wore an orange prison jumpsuit every day leading up to and during his graduation from UNCG. His goal was to challenge those he’d come across to address their prejudices against people in prison.

The project won him acclaim from national art publications and national media outlets like the New York Times. Universities and other groups have invited him to travel the country exchanging thoughts and ideas with people about the criminal justice system.

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Sherrill Roland wore an orange jumpsuit for a type of performance art called the Jumpsuit Project to ignite conversations about incarceration and criminal justice. Here, he has invited the public to stand inside a cell-sized space he has created with tape on the floor. Christian Carter-Ross

Ramen as art

At the McColl this fall, he’s turned his attention toward the mixed-media work he loves, building large cinder blocks out of layered plywood and is transcribing letters he’d sent friends and family onto translucent paper in a digital-clock font.

Finished works hang in the hallways outside his studio in the McColl.

There are large replicas of letters he wrote from jail, the words written on yellow paper he made by stirring ramen noodle seasoning into paper pulp. (Ramen is significant in D.C. Central, Roland said, because it’s sold in the jail canteens and acts as a type of currency among prisoners.)

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Artist Sherrill Roland created this large replica of a letter he wrote from jail out of paper he made by stirring ramen seasoning packets into paper pulp. Cristina Bolling

On another wall are photos of notes he typed into his iPhone during the period when he was released from jail but on probation and unable to leave Washington, D.C.

He won’t talk about what crimes he was convicted of (“that’s the No. 1 thing people want to know,” he says), because he believes that would distract from the conversation he wants to have about criminal justice.

In the Mecklenburg jail library, the teens never ask.

Power and toilet paper

Roland doesn’t ask them why they’re there, either. But he does ask each teen his name. He talks to them about the writings of Toni Morrison, the story of his time behind bars and what it was like when he was released.

He explains the meaning of his orange jumpsuit project — and why an inanimate object like an orange garment takes on so much meaning when a man with dark skin is wearing it.

And he asks them not to let this time in jail define them.

“A lot of times, these experiences are looked at as not valuable. A lot of times, people will look down on you for having had these experiences,” Roland tells them. “But these stories — your stories — matter.

“You guys have a maturity that a lot of people don’t have,” he says. “You’ve got to do something with this experience.”

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Sherrill Roland, who’s an artist-in-residence at the McColl Center, met with about 10 youth inmates at the Mecklenburg County Detention facility, or Jail North, on Tuesday Oct. 9, 2019. Sherrill was wrongly convicted and spent more than 10 months in prison and his art is a reflection of his time behind bars and his transition back into society. John D. Simmons jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

He pulls up some images on an overhead projector and shows them the places in Charlotte where they can see his work: At the McColl Center, and the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture, where he has a piece in the permanent collection.

He asks if they’ve ever been to either place. The teens shake their heads. Roland invites any of them who will be out by early December to visit him at the McColl. Several say they will.

When he shows them a photo of a piece of art he has in the Gantt, a few almost come out of their seats with enthusiasm.

The piece is a large double-pane Plexiglas door with the number “7” on it — one of three cell numbers he had while in D.C. Central. The teens really get excited when he points to a piece of toilet paper with words on it that’s suspended vertically at about eye level between two panels of glass.

When he talks about this piece to other audiences, he has to explain the significance of the toilet paper. But not today.

The teens know because they do the same thing, using water to paste a piece of toilet paper to the small window in their cell doors to give themselves privacy.

“This is about privacy and freedom and power,” Roland says. The teens nod vigorously.

The next generation

At the McColl Center a few days later, Roland is still processing his visit to the jail.

It was the little things that brought his time in D.C. Central roaring back: the feel of the cinder block walls. The pause when approaching each heavy metal door and waiting for the clicking sound as it unlocked.

The visit, he said, was as much for him as it was for the young men he visited.

“What is it like for this generation that is coming through? I know what it was like for me, but what is it like for them?” he asks. “How can I be of help?”

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Sherrill Roland, who’s an artist-in-residence at the McColl Center, met with about 10 youth inmates at the Mecklenburg County Detention facility, or Jail North, on Tuesday Oct. 9, 2019. Sherrill was wrongly convicted and spent more than 10 months in prison and his art is a reflection of his time behind bars and his transition back into society. John D. Simmons jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

He thinks about the next generation a lot these days. His daughter is 6 and she’s now in kindergarten in Raleigh, where Roland lives.

“She loves this art stuff. She says, ‘I want to meet your art friends,’ “ he laughs. “In school she’s like, ‘I’m an artist. I paint, I draw. My dad’s an artist.’ There’s no denying it.”

He smiles broadly at the thought. His own dad was a barber who died when Roland was 3, and his mom worked in factories and warehouses to support her two children. Roland was the first in his family to go to college.

His daughter is old enough to admire what her dad does, but she’s still too young to know the harsh realities behind his work. Roland knows that time will come.

“I’m anticipating the day when this stuff all makes sense to her in a different way,” Roland says.

“She sees orange jumpsuits in the wash all the time, and it doesn’t click. She saw me performing my orange jumpsuit in New York, and it doesn’t click,” he says. “But there will be a moment when it all reads completely different. And she has a major part in that.”

Meet the artist

Roland and the other McColl fall artists-in-residence will be on hand Nov. 14 from 6-9 p.m. during “The Outcome,” a party celebrating the closing of the fall 2019 resident artist season. Admission is free. Register at https://mccollcenter.org/2019/10/the-outcome-4/

On Nov. 19 from 6:30-8:30 p.m., he’ll be on a panel at the Harvey B. Gantt Center called “Locked up and Pushed Out.” Roland and other panelists will talk about issues addressed in the Gantt’s new exhibit “& justice for all.” Admission is free. Register at https://www.ganttcenter.org/calendar/talk-about-it-tuesday-locked-up-and-pushed-out/

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