History: Just Art began in July 2015 as a weekly open studio art program in Division II of the Cook County Jail. With a handful of books and exhibition catalogues for reference, along with some basic art supplies, we met weekly in a makeshift studio to paint and draw together. Over time we filled the walls with finished works, and the space became a gallery as well. A highlight of those first years was the inclusion of artwork by program participants at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago in connection with their Kerry James Marshall: Mastry exhibition (Apr 23–Sep 25, 2016).

Provided on a volunteer basis, the program ran for two and a half years without outside support. Then, in December of 2017, Illinois Humanities invited Just Art to participate in the Envisioning Justice Initiative, Just Art founder Billy McGuinness becoming one of seven Hub Directors for the Initiative. With support from Illinois Humanities, programming was expanded to include a writing workshop, and instructors were paid for the first time. Building on these developments, in 2019 Just Art became a registered non-profit corporation (without taking the further step of establishing 501(c)(3) status) and secured a fiscal sponsor for the project.

Current Programming – Fall 2019 through Spring 2020: On hiatus for the summer, in September Just Art programming will resume at the jail through two new workshops: one is a theater program for female detainees; the other is a book club-style reading and writing workshop based on Taoism for detainees in the maximum-security Division X. Both programs will be offered in three 10-week sessions over the course of the year.

Mindset: The existence of the jail is not reflective of the individual failings of the people locked up there. Rather, it is reflective of our collective failure to honor the values that are to supposed to guide and shape our society, reflective of our collective abdication of responsibility to build the kind of world we want to see. But it doesn’t have to be this way. The world is what we make it, and we don’t have to be a nation of jailers. It’s not about law and order, it’s about support and opportunity. It’s not about punishment, it’s about care and healing. It’s not about incarceration, it’s about education. The solutions are obvious. We need only the will to act on what we already know.

Methodology: Taking shape as various weekly workshops for people incarcerated at the Cook County Jail, Just Art is essentially a social sculpture; a time-based, collaborative work of art, in which a group of people is collectively remaking from the inside out the largest single site pre-detention facility in the United States. The project is not about providing services or advocating for policy reform. It’s about relationship building and, by extension, world building. It’s about enacting solutions on a personal level. Focused on the human experience, Just Art uses creative practices to offer an alternative to isolation and punishment, shifting the overall energy and constitution of the jail toward a more positive place.
Goal: To turn the jail into a center for human connection and collective learning. We believe that with enough passion, imagination, hard work, critical thinking, courage and love, every detention center, every jail, and every prison in this country can be deconstructed and remade into the kinds of institutions that we actually want and need – schools, libraries, health clinics, affordable housing, employment agencies, cultural venues, and community centers.

For more information, please email contact@justartnow.org. To support the project, please visit us at Fractured Atlas. Thanks!