Lawyer Angela Whitley is talking about her recently opened Whitley Art Gallery, which is housed inside her law offices. “I wanted to help,” she says — “not just in the legal aspect after [defendants] got in trouble but to be more proactive.”
Open since early October, the gallery's focus is to display artworks made by incarcerated individuals, or those recently released, as well as art that deals with the judicial system: themes of hope, despair, loneliness, anger and sorrow. Proceeds from the sale of the inmate work will go toward payment of court fines and costs, restitution for victims, and to the families of the detainees.
Going beyond just displaying the artwork, Whitley and her gallery manager, Emilia Lanwehr, are putting together a program to bring art instructors, volunteers and art supplies into the prisons in an effort to offer rehabilitation through art.
“When I approached those in charge of the jail facilities they were receptive especially because there is no funding right now,” she says of the project's acceptance by officials. “And even if they wanted to offer activities they couldn't.”
After practicing criminal law for almost 10 years Whitley applied and was accepted to Virginia Commonwealth University's art foundation program. Her goal was to study interior design. She did well in her classes but, as she puts it, “eventually had to face reality and return to work.”
Still, she felt less creative and desired more of an artistic stimulus than torts and code books. In practicing law, Whitley says, “there are a lot of frustrating situations you see over and over again, like those convicted with a felony and the endless cycle they face with how hard it is to keep a job and move on with their life.”
But with art you only know an artist by his or her style or signature. After much thought, Whitley decided to open a law firm and a gallery at the same time, in the same space.
Art itself can be a great equalizer, allowing a new impression of the artist to be offered. Sometimes art can allow artists to reveal a hidden personality while other times it allows them to create whole new lives. The art displayed at Whitley isn't driven by any outside art movement. It's a collection made of individuals in the same position in life. Each image is a glimpse of an outside world of faces they can only view through photos or from scenes within their locked imaginations.
“We have had a lot of positive responses from family members, especially trying to do something for their sons and daughters,” Lanwehr says. “They find it truly inspirational. They think people forget about them.”
For now, family members and friends bring in most of the inmate artwork. “Right now I had to draw up a contract and am waiting for board approval,” Whitley says. “Things are moving slow now with the bureaucracy and all.”
On display beside the handful of inmate art is a debut solo show, “On Account of the Poison,” by graffiti artist Eric Pfeiffer. His outlaw work echoes the theme of the gallery in its content and delivery. By February, Whitley and Lanwehr hope to show only artwork created by incarcerated individuals. The gallery will have openings every other month. The law firm must have first priority because it funds the entire operation.
“I know it is good to have repeat offenders because then I can make more money,” Whitley says wryly of being a lawyer. “But it is better for them to get on the right path. They may just realize they have a skill of their own.” S
“On Account of the Poison,” an exhibition of graffiti artist Eric Pfeiffer's provocative work, runs through Jan. 30 at Whitley Art Gallery, 29 N. 17th St. 343-0027.