History: Just Art began in July 2015 as a weekly open studio art program in Division II of the Cook County Jail. With some basic art supplies and a handful of books and exhibition catalogues for reference, 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 that first year was the inclusion of artwork by program participants at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago in connection with the 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 significant outside support. Then, in the fall 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 provided through the initiative, programming was expanded to include a writing workshop, the project moved into Division X (maximum security), instructors were paid for the first time, and Just Art became part of a city-wide network of organizations addressing mass incarceration. The project also expanded to include a theater program for female detainees. Building on these developments, in 2019 Just Art became a registered nonprofit corporation and secured a fiscal sponsor for the project.

Current Programming: In March 2020, we were forced to suspend programming at the jail, and as of now, we have not been able to return. We have, however, remained active during the pandemic, contributing to the formation of the Envisioning Justice Network, launching programming for returning citizens at Saint Leonard's Ministries, and developing new programming in anticipation of returning to the jail in days to come.

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; we don’t have to be a nation of jailers. Instead of law and order, we can be about support and opportunity. Instead of punishment, we can be about care and healing. Instead of incarceration, we can be about education. The solutions are obvious. We need only the will to act on what we already know.

Methodology: Taking shape in a variety of ways, Just Art is essentially a social sculpture—a time-based, collaborative work of art, in which a group of people is collectively reimagining how we might be with one another. The project is not about providing services or advocating for policy reform. It’s about enacting solutions on a personal level, about relationship building and, by extension, world building. Focused on the human experience, Just Art uses creative practices to offer alternatives to isolation and fear.
Goal: To transform carceral facilities and adjacent spaces into centers 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 connect@justartnow.org. Thanks!