After discovering her art-making abilities in prison, Wissman interrogates mass incarceration, the struggles of re-entry and more in a stunning Fresh A.I.R. Gallery online exhibition
While Aimee Wissman was serving time at the Dayton Correctional Institution (DCI), she was also making art. At one point, she got the idea to do a series on the gods of capitalism, and there was no question which mythical character would come first: GOMI, the God of Mass Incarceration.
Wissman used a sketch of GOMI — a bulbous, goblin-like creature who stares hungrily with an open mouth at the children beneath him — to create her very first print in prison.
“I had been trying to figure out how we could make prints, because we didn't have any equipment. So I tried scratching images into Styrofoam trays that you would get from the chow hall, and then painting the tray and sticking the paper to it and peeling it off,” Wissman said. “It was very, very rudimentary, but it totally worked.”
Later, after her December 2017 release from DCI, Wissman cofounded the Returning Artists Guild with Kamisha Thomas, and GOMI became part of the guild’s logo, as well as the slogan: “Don’t let GOMI eat your children.” The character, along with many others, shows up in Wissman’s recent Fresh A.I.R. Gallery online exhibition, “Trust the Process,” which closes this week but will remain archived on the gallery’s website.
Wissman described her life before incarceration as its own kind of prison. “I had experienced a lot of domestic violence, had experienced sexual assault, and just general instability and issues of self-worth. It set me up to be really interested in drugs and the feelings that they could provide and the escapism of that,” Wissman said. “I started using when I was 16. I'm 32 now, almost 33, and it's kind of unfathomable to me to think back at how young I was.”
In Dayton, Wissman was in maximum security for two of her five years, which meant countless hours of unoccupied time. “I had to find something to do. I didn't want to play cards. I had read a lot, and I needed other activities,” she said. “My daughter was only a year old when I was sent to prison, and so art-making for me became this way that I could make things to send her as a way to keep some kind of relationship going.”Get news and entertainment delivered to your inbox: Sign up for our daily newsletter
Wissman started out tracing, then realized she had a knack for making her own lines, shapes and colors. She painted cups for her daughter and sent her a hand-decorated T-shirt every year on her birthday. Soon, other prisoners wanted to make art, too, so Wissman created an art therapy program at the prison. “I realized what a connector art is,” she said. “Art can very naturally create community.”
After her release, Wissman was ready to put her incarceration behind her, but she soon realized that society wasn't. “The whole time you’re doing your time, you’re thinking to yourself that you are paying your debt. And most of us way overpay. … When you're released, you have this sense of, ‘It's over.’ And then you realize that it's only begun, and the damage that's done is a lifetime," she said. "It's really hard. It's hard at the PTA. It's hard when you're trying to rent some place. It's hard when you have no work history — all of those things that normal people could experience, but then if you add that layer of a felony conviction, it’s especially difficult.”
Her first week out of prison, Wissman found herself at a “cookie exchange party with a group of suburban moms asking me who I was married to, what I did for a living, where I live,” she said. “I could not even make small talk.”
This uncomfortable transition is reflected in Wissman’s series of “street gods,” including a colorful painting of a menacing character titled “The Middleman, a wolf in sheep’s clothes,” which Wissman described as a gatekeeper for returning citizens and representing “two sides of the same coin, so a drug dealer or a used car salesman kind of guy, and a parole officer or a probation officer,” she said.
Another, “The Good Cop, when pigs fly,” depicts a pig in a police officer’s uniform. A third painting of a fish wearing a golden crown and eyeing a baited hook — “The Returning Citizen, a fish out of water” — is a self-portrait, of sorts.
While re-entry has been a struggle, Wissman is quick to acknowledge the good things, too. She had a show at 934 Gallery and soon after was gifted studio space by GCAC. “That was life-changing for me,” she said. “I had these huge walls, and I bought rolled canvas and just stapled it to the wall and started working really large. I had never experienced the ability to do that. I had to learn new ways of using my hands because I wasn't crouched over something real small. It’s been interesting to see the way that art can change just based on the size of the room and how much space you have to move around.”
Wissman is also the Marketing and Exhibitions Fellow at the Riffe Gallery, and she’s on the 2021 calendar for Franklinton gallery ROY G BIV. Plus, some of the last pieces of art she made while incarcerated are currently on display at MoMA in New York for a show titled “Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration.”
“Now, I think more long term about the narrative of these pieces and how I want to build a body of work,” she said. “There’s so much I don’t know, and I’m a little bit stubborn about being self-taught. One of my [new pieces] I'm a little concerned about. I don't know how to finish it, because I literally painted to the edges, so there’s not space for stretching on a normal frame. I’m like, ‘What do I do?’ But those are really fun problems to have.”