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Arkansas artists paint 12 prisoners from around the country for the Prison Portrait Project

"You get to learn a bit more about them, they become relatable," said Layet Johnson, who painted Kenneth Key, an Illinois prisoner serving a life sentence.

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Artists in central Arkansas are working to portray people who are incarcerated all over the country.

26 artists' artwork was put on display in downtown Little Rock Friday in partnership with Compassion Works at New Deal Gallery. The Prison Portrait Project selected 12 prisoners, who sent a letter and photo in for the artists to paint their portrait.

"You get to learn a bit more about them, they become relatable," Layet Johnson said.

Layet Johnson is one of the 26 artists involved with the Prison Portrait Project. He painted Kenneth Key, who is serving a life sentence at Stateville Correctional Center in Illinois.

"If you look at images of Stateville Correctional Center, I think it's pretty clear it's a pretty terrible way to live," he said.

And Key's portrait is much smaller than the others.

"A lot of portraits are about bringing the portrait closer and I wanted to emphasize the distance that we sort of live with people who are serving prison terms," Johnson said.

Johnson says the inspiration for the smaller portrait also came from the Stateville Correctional Center.

"Did this kind of math to make you feel like you're seeing Kenneth Key's face the same size the security guard would see," he said.

Each person in prison has two portraits done by two separate artists and each portrait is set up directly across from each other in the gallery.

"People do portraits and stuff of famous people or pretty people, and this right here is the people we don't see all the time," Tanya Hollifield said.

Tanya Hollifield painted the portrait of John Ponder.

"He is incarcerated here in Arkansas. He's been there since he was 14," she said.

She said many of the artists do not know why these men are incarcerated.

"People that go into prison are not the same. So, a lot of people in prison don’t ask each other what they’re in for," she said.

This is why Hollifield said its important to tell these people's stories while they are behind bars.

"Because they could be different by now," she said.

Johnson said the artwork will be sent to each individual for them to see. 

The exhibit is also open Saturday from 11 a.m.to 2 p.m. at the New Deal gallery in SoMa.


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