Friday, February 23, 2024

Artist Sarah McKenzie went to prison for her latest works

Sarah McKenzie is one of Colorado’s most respected painters, and she earned that reputation through a most unique body of work: she paints architecture.

McKenzie is known – and has exhibited – far and wide for her precise renderings of built spaces, such as residences, commercial structures, construction sites, abandoned factories and much more. A few years ago, she began a series capturing exhibition spaces, museums and galleries similar to those that display her own art. Like almost all of his works, the paintings are hyperrealistic and devoid of human presence, but they still have a soft, personal quality that makes them both recognizable and alluring.

But when she decided three years ago to start painting prisons, she knew she had to do more research and change her usual process. She couldn’t just show up at high-security public facilities, take a few photos, take them back to her Boulder studio, and recreate them in oils and acrylics. She had to fight her way inside.

Painting by Sarah McKenzie depicting the courtyard of the Sterling Correctional Facility. (Provided by Sarah McKenzie)

And for the series of paintings now on display at the Museum of Art in Fort Collins, that project took her down a path that changed both the direction of her career and her perspective on the art world. -even. She went inside and gained a new understanding of how art can impact everyone who creates it, especially the incarcerated people she met along the way.

The “To See Inside: Art, Architecture and Incarceration” exhibition also focuses on McKenzie’s paintings and drawings made by people held in government prisons. This is a compelling and organic group exhibition.

McKenzie’s painting journey included trips to publicly accessible prisons, such as Alcatraz, the legendary landmark on San Francisco Bay, and Eastern State Penitentiary, the former “model prison” that is now a venue popular tourist destination in Philadelphia. She called on an acquaintance to gain access to a youth facility in San Diego. The scenes she created are featured in the Fort Collins show.

Sarah McKenzie gained access to incarceration facilities by giving drawing lessons to the people there.  (Provided by Sarah McKenzie)
Sarah McKenzie gained access to incarceration facilities by giving drawing lessons to the people there. (Provided by Sarah McKenzie)

But getting a more intimate view of prisons here in Colorado required special access, and to do that she began by speaking in 2020 to the Prison Arts Initiative at the University of Denver, which produces cultural programs for incarcerated people.

“I thought maybe I could help them fill out their paperwork in their office as a volunteer and get to know some people,” she said in a recent interview. “I told them I would do any big job. I just needed an introduction.

Instead, the program asked him to teach drawing to prisoners across the state. Since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, she has worked with others to develop a video course that was delivered to prisons via closed-circuit video. More than 250 students registered in 13 establishments.

Hector Castillo's dream of a future where prisons are no longer necessary.  (Provided by Sarah McKenzie)
Hector Castillo’s dream of a future where prisons are no longer necessary. (Provided by Sarah McKenzie)

Students attended the class each week and then drew the assigned topics. The works were scanned and sent to reviewers across Colorado, who provided feedback. McKenzie worked directly with male prisoners at the Fremont Correctional Center.

When the pandemic subsided, she was able to go straight indoors to teach. She got permission to take photos and was able to begin her own painting process.

The result shows the harsh realities of prison life. One of the paintings in the exhibit, “Some Days the Sky Is Just a Ceiling,” shows just one corner of the Sterling Correctional Center prison yard, which McKenzie describes as “this kind of vast space, like the size of two football fields, with these concrete walls poured in all directions, two or three stories high.

The courtyard has no windows. “And so you can’t actually see the landscape beyond the prison when you’re in the yard. All you can see is the sky when you look above the walls,” she said. It’s a taste of what it could be like to truly experience the outdoors.

Another painting, “Window Blinds,” depicts a solitary confinement cell. The space has small rectangular windows but they are covered with blue metal squares that block the outside view. McKenzie renders the scene in a simple manner, capturing the geometric patterns of the windows, but also the feeling of isolation that exists in the room.

As she made her own works, she also began to appreciate the prisoner drawings she saw. The pieces included in “To See Inside” reveal an inside view of daily life behind bars.

Imaginary scene of Joseph Taylor McGill inside a prison.  (Provided by Sarah McKenzie)
Imaginary scene of Joseph Taylor McGill inside a prison. (Provided by Sarah McKenzie)

For example, several inmates chose to make drawings of their beds and how they use the little personal space they have to express their personality.

Another common element: the prisoners render the interior of the cells in black and white but switch to color to depict scenes they might see through a window. One drawing, by Joseph Taylor McGill, shows a simple gray line drawing depicting an interior prison wall where an imaginary door opens to reveal a vibrant natural scene outside.

There are also scenes set up with great imagination and charged with optimism. A drawing by Hector Castillo depicts a dilapidated prison in the distant future. The prison has been closed for some time and the walls are open to the outside where the sun shines and children play. In the middle of the space, a giant tree with pink flowers grew.

McKenzie believes it’s important to show this work in public and she’s made it her mission. She plans to hold future exhibitions, including at the Colorado State Capitol, that will omit her works and feature only pieces by incarcerated or formerly incarcerated Coloradans. She is committed, she says, to integrating her collaborations with these artists as part of her ongoing mission.

Self-portrait of Hector Castillo in his prison bed.  (Provided by Sarah McKenzie)
Self-portrait of Hector Castillo in his prison bed. (Provided by Sarah McKenzie)

But McKenzie’s works, the installations’ interior scenes, are profound in their own way — both for what they say about the way we hold people captive and about the power of architecture to shape our attitudes or , as McKenzie puts it, “how it communicates our societal priorities and cultural norms and controls our behaviors as we move through spaces.

The paintings also represent a rich turning point in the career of an important Colorado artist who took us on her very unique journey of exploring built environments. She sees a connection between all her subjects, whether office buildings, prisons or museums.

“It was actually an extension of my interest in observing museum spaces and thinking about institutions and institutional architecture,” she said. “I’ve been thinking a lot about this idea of ​​a display of power and how prisons and museums are very invested in this display of power.”


“To see Inside” continues through March 17 at the Museum of Art in Fort Collins. 201 S. College Ave. Info: 970-482-2787 or

Ray Mark Rinaldi is a Denver-based freelance writer specializing in art and music.

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