Tamms Year Ten spreads the dirt

By Evan Minsker

Jesse Graves, 21, was working on a project for an art class that required for him to make a stencil. Being the eco-minded young artist that he is, he decided to focus his project on the environment.

However, it seemed counter-intuitive to spray paint toxic material for an environmentally conscious message. That’s when he came up with mud stencils.

It’s exactly what it sounds like. Graves cuts out stencils and then smears his images with mud.

“What I wanted to do was put these environmental messages in public spaces,” Graves said. “And it wouldn’t make sense for me to use something like spray paint because that’s so toxic. Mud just made sense to me. I mean, it’s earth. It’s just the most basic substance. What I really want to do is use this earth to offer solutions for how we can sustain ourselves.”

The method certainly fits the messages perfectly. Graves has used mud to point out the complications of recycling, the use of oil in making bottles for water and the harms of industrial farming.

Recently, however, his invention was utilized here in Chicago for an unlikely cause-torture. More specifically, it was used to draw attention to torture in an Illinois prison.

Tamms super max prison is located on the southern tip of Illinois, approximately 360 miles south of Chicago. The prison is designed to hold prisoners in solitary confinement. Both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have made statements condemning Tamms as a prison rife with human rights violations.

Laurie Jo Reynolds, an organizer of Tamms Year Ten, the primary group raising awareness and challenging the conditions of Tamms, said one-third of the prisoners at Tamms have remained there for more than 10 years.

“It was originally designed to be a short-term behavior modification program, but it hasn’t ended up being that,” said Reynolds, an adjunct faculty member in Columbia’s film & video department. “Instead, it’s become a human rights disaster and a warehouse.”

Although the organizers and volunteers with Tamms Year Ten have been working to raise awareness with legislators, they’ve also been working to get the word out to the public. It has been anything but a typical awareness campaign. They’ve had blues concerts, poetry readings, film screenings, and performance art, all with the intention of spreading the word about Tamms.

And that’s where Graves comes in.

When Reynolds and Tamms Year Ten were looking for a campaign that would grab people’s attention, artist and supporter Nicolas Lampert had the idea to incorporate mud stencils.

Lampert is an art teacher at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, where he met Graves for the first time. Graves took Lampert’s class, Guerrilla Printmaking. It was in this class that Graves came up with the idea of creating mud stencils.

Ever since, Lampert has been a fan and an advocate of Graves’ work, which is how Graves and Tamms Year Ten collaborated on the mud stenciling project.

“Stencils have been popular for a long time and everyone’s seen them in an urban environment, but mud stencils are just ingenious,” Lampert said.

When Lampert and Reynolds approached Graves about using mud stencils for Tamms Year Ten, Graves began reading up on the cause. It only took a few readings to move him to lend a hand to the cause.

“What really convinced me that this was a campaign I wanted to support was their prisoners’ testimony-the stories from the people who have been there or who are still there-about the conditions they’re experiencing and just the mental stress that would accumulate from being locked under solitary confinement,” Graves said. “I mean it really is state-sanctioned torture.”

So Grave, Lampert and a handful of people in Milwaukee drove down to Chicago on Saturday, June 6. There, over 30 volunteers spread across the city to mud stencil the image of the state of Illinois, accompanied by the words, “End torture in Illinois” and “Tamms.”

The stencils were put up in broad daylight in high foot-traffic areas of Chicago-the Art Institute, Wrigley Field, college campuses, parks and all throughout the city. While they put the stencils down, they handed out information about Tamms and talked to passers-by.

Although it was simply a way to get the message out to the public, Lampert said it was hugely beneficial to the members of Tamms Year Ten.

“So many people in the Tamms Year Ten coalition are doing difficult daily work like contacting politicians, writing and organizing letter drives and so on, but this gave people a chance to have fun and celebrate what they do, to get out on the streets and do this creative project,” Lampert said. “Each campaign is different, but in this case, it seems like the mud stencils really activated the coalition itself.”

One of the appeals of mud stencils to Lampert was how they stood out in the city.

“The city’s just dominated with advertisements and messages that you have to pay huge amounts of money to get a message out in a public space, and it’s mostly asking you to consume things or obey certain laws,” Lampert said. “So not only was this a project where we were addressing a prison issue, but we were somewhat reclaiming the streets.”

But if the feedback Lampert has received is to be believed, mud stencils won’t be isolated to the Tamms Year Ten cause in Chicago. He’s been contacted by people in the Bay Area of California and by Iraq Veterans Against the War who are interested in utilizing mud stencils for their causes.

Graves, who Lampert calls “incredibly generous,” has instructions for how to make a mud stencil on his website (MudStencils.com). Instead of slapping a copyright on it, he wants his method to be utilized by the world.

“I’m very pro-mud stenciling,” he said. “I want other people to do it.”

For more information on mud stencils, visit MudStencils.com. For more information on Tamms Year Ten, visit YearTen.org.