by Sue Ann Rybak
St. Vincent De Paul Catholic Church, 109 E. Price St. in Germantown, is one of two sites selected by Art for Justice, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to support and exhibit inmate art to promote dialogue on ways to prevent crime, reduce levels of incarceration and improve the criminal justice system.
Art for Justice will display select artwork from its exhibit “A Man for Our Times: Seeking Justice and Redemption; Shining Hope and Love” at St. Vincent De Paul Church for the month of September to commemorate the visit of Pope Francis to Philadelphia. A reception will be held on Friday, Aug. 29, from 7 to 9 p.m.
Ann Marie Kirk, co-founder of Art for Justice, said the organization “seeks to engage viewers in conversations about collective justice and individual worth through art.”
“We display prisoner art that reaches across deep divides in our society, reveals our shared humanity and stimulates dialogue about how to achieve a more functional, accessible system of justice for all,” she said.
Kirk, said that, as a child growing up, social justice issues were an intricate part of her life.
“My father, an attorney, would often read selections from religion, law and the arts to us,” she said. “After the readings, we were expected to participate in dynamic family discussions about social and human rights issues.”
After Kirk graduated from college, she got a job working at Sleighton Farm School in Delaware County, a residential placement center for delinquent girls.
“The girls, ages 13 to 17, were locked in their rooms during the afternoons and throughout the night,” she said. “While I worked at Sleighton Farms, a girl, Henrietta, died from burns she suffered in a fire she set inside her locked room.”
She said she was “deeply troubled and traumatized” by the experience and, after writing a detailed letter to the superintendent, resigned.
Sadly, Kirk, 65, is no stranger to violent crime. In 1979, during a bank robbery, a man wearing a stocking over his face held an AK-47 inches from her 2-year-old daughter’s head while her little girl screamed hysterically.
“From the bank floor, I looked at my terrified daughter and into the eyes of the man aiming the assault weapon at her head,” she said. “While the lead assailant viciously threatened my daughter, another man crawled from the corner, pulled my daughter under his body and crawled back into the corner.”
Kirk, who believes her daughter is alive today because of this courageous man, said this experience propelled her to become involved in criminal justice issues.
“It is my belief that incarceration in the United States, the highest rate in the world, is the result of interlocking, inhumane, inequitable and ineffective policies and practices that are corroding the fabric of our society,” she said.
It’s one of the reasons why years later she helped to create Art for Justice’s “Road Map for Life Workshops,” which Kirk said “brought full circle” her passion to reach out to young people and help them turn away from violence. She often tells youth who have been involved in “harmful activities” about her own personal experience with violent crime.
“Sometimes, I feel like I am the one crawling across the bank floor trying to teach youth how to save their own lives and the lives of others,” she said.
Last Fall when she heard Pope Francis was coming to Philadelphia, Kirk reached out to the co-founder of Art for Justice Charles Zafir Lawson, who is currently serving life in prison without patrol at Graterford Prison, and Daniel Gwynn, who is on death row, and asked them to create artwork to be displayed during the pope’s visit.
Kirk, who is not Catholic, said she began discussing (via letters) the concept of the Pope holding the image of a death row prisoner in his hands with Gwynn.
Gwynn later asked her if she could send him some photographs of Pope Francis. Kirk contacted Gerry Givnish, who is a parishioner at St. Vincent De Paul Church and president of Art for Justice’s board, and asked him if he could get photographs of the pope to send to Gwynn.
With the help of the Rev. Sylvester Peterka, St. Vincent’s pastor, Givnish was able to send the photographs to Gwynn, who created the painting entitled “A Man for All People” to honor Pope Francis. Art for Justice will be selling posters with the image for $20. All proceeds benefit Art for Justice.
Givnish became familiar with Art for Justice while volunteering to teach art at Graterford Prison.
“In the last two years, I have seen a widespread understanding in how criminal injustice occurs anywhere from policing to prosecutorial misconduct,” he said.
He added that “racism in our society plays a role in infecting our criminal justice system, as well as poverty.”
He said when people do become aware of the problems in the system they often become “enraged by the injustices and how it can be considered normal.”
Laura Ford, prison and re-entry ministry director at St. Vincent De Paul Church, said the collaboration between Art for Justice and St. Vincent De Paul Church is a natural one.
“Pope Francis has spoken many times on the dignity and worth of every human person, including prisoners,” she said. “Our Prison Ministry and Re-entry Program at St. Vincent’s is grounded on that belief. The Art for Justice Program reveals the dignity and humanity of prisoners in a profound way by displaying their works of art. This exhibit is a way of connecting our Re-Entry Program’s vision of justice with the Art for Justice program’s mission and with Pope Francis’ call to serve our incarcerated brothers and sisters.”
For more information about Art for Justice or the exhibit go to www.artforjustice.org. The exhibit will be on display in the church during Mass at St. Vincent’s on Saturday nights and Sunday mornings in September.
Updated Aug. 26. An earlier version of this article erroneously stated that the painting “A Man for All People” would be on sale. No paintings in the Art for Justice exhibit are for sale. The article also incorrectly stated Charles Zafir Lawson was on death row. He is currently serving life in prison without patrol.