CUNY Law School exhibits art by ex-Rikers inmates

Former inmate Kornan Bascombe stands with his painting at a CUNY Law School exhibit of works by Rikers students. Bascombe was the featured artist at the event. Photo by Anna Gustafson
By Anna Gustafson

Twenty-two days out of jail, former Rikers inmate Kornan Bascombe has already become something of a star.

Bascombe, a 31-year-old who spent 13 months imprisoned at Rikers Island, was the featured artist at a one-night art exhibit at CUNY Law School in Flushing April 22. Rikers is a jail facility that sits in the East River between Queens and the Bronx.

“It feels good to be here,” said Bascombe, who now lives in New Jersey.

Bascombe, who spent much of the night signing copies of his painting of a mother and an infant in the Caribbean, was one of about 60 artists from Horizons Academy at Rikers to have their work shown at the law school’s exhibit put on by The People’s Art, a new organization created by CUNY Law student Noah W. Marmar.

The People’s Art was formed this fall to address recidivism — released inmates who end up back in jail — through arts programming.

Last week’s event raised more than $5,000 for the art program at Horizons Academy, an alternative school that serves about 1,200 Rikers inmates annually.

The funds raised came from donations from Pieper Bar Review, the exhibit’s attendees and proceeds from auctioning off some of the more than 70 works made by the students.

The CUNY event was also aided by Getting Out and Staying Out, a nonprofit that works with individuals during and after their stay in jail in order to provide them job training and help them find long-term employment.

Ronnye Hightower, a teacher at Horizons, launched the art program at the school in October 2008, and Marmar said he hopes to boost the program that is struggling to provide many materials and space for its students.

“I want to develop these artists who have so much talent but not a lot of materials,” Marmar said.. “Right now they’re working at little vintage school desks. I’d like them to have a real art room with big tables and all kinds of materials.”

Horizons Principal Gloria Ortiz, Hightower and Bascombe praised the art program, saying it provides students with a creative outlet.

“For a lot of the students, it’s the first time they see themselves as artists,” said Ortiz, a Bayside resident.

That new perspective is a big deal, Bascombe said. For him, the art program inspired him to seriously begin to look into attending art school after he gets his GED.

“At the school, you realize that there’s nothing wrong in dreaming,” Bascombe said. “There’s always a way to make your dreams come true.”

Last week’s event at the law school was the first of what should be many sponsored by People’s Art in an attempt to make the public more aware of the talent that exists in a population many are quick to judge.

“It’s really easy to typecast these guys,” Marmar said. “…For people to see that these guys can bring enjoyment to the lives of people on the outside is a really powerful thing. Bringing art from Rikers into the public is a way to make people see these individuals as humans.”

Some of the works will be displayed at the Queens Museum of Art for two weeks beginning June 17.

For more information, visit thepeoplesart.squarespace.com.

Reach reporter Anna Gustafson by e-mail at agustafson@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 174.

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