Sarah McKenzie explores prison power and architecture through painting


Boulder-based artist Sarah McKenzie paints architecture. She started with canvases of abandoned buildings in the city of Detroit in high school, then painted urban sprawl on the Front Range and construction sites after moving to Colorado. More recently, with the representation of the David B. Smith Gallery in Denver, she exhibited works representing institutional spaces of galleries and museums – these paintings often being presented in the very spaces she represents.

“I really think of architecture as a lens through which we can understand our society,” McKenzie says. “If we look at what our society is building and what happens to those structures built over time, it reveals a lot about the changes in our society, our economy, our workforce and our priorities as a country.

Considering other types of institutions essential to the understanding of modern society, she decided to study the architecture of American prisons. “I thought prisons were on the other end of the social spectrum compared to the museum,” she says.

In March 2020, she applied for the Marion International Fellowship for the Visual and Performing Arts at the State University of New York at Fredonia. The Marion scholarship is unique among artistic scholarships in that it supports an artistic journey rather than a concrete project or end product; for a year, he sponsors an artist in four institutions, where he participates in conferences, seminars and thematic conferences that stimulate reflection on particular subjects. McKenzie became a scholarship finalist – then the pandemic hit, and the Marion scholarship was canceled for the year.

But the cancellation of the scholarship was a blessing in disguise. McKenzie spent lockdown doing more research on the prison system and spoke with people active in the criminal justice reform space. They pointed out to him that it was impossible to work on the architecture of prisons without working closely with those most affected by the criminal justice system. This helped redirect McKenzie’s focus, and when she applied again for the Marion Fellowship in 2021, she won it with her revised project, “To See Inside: Understanding the People and Architecture of the US Prison System “.

“It really changed the project for me. Part of it is still understanding architecture, but it’s also really about understanding the people impacted by that architecture, ”explains McKenzie.

Currently, McKenzie is focusing on a deeper understanding of the history of the American prison system and examining the more recent movement to abolish prisons. Some of the books on his stack include Jackie Wang Prison capitalism, by Michel Foucault Discipline and punish, and that of Michelle Alexander The New Jim Crow. She also listened to the Ear Hustle Podcast; the In) DU Prison Arts Initiative podcast; and the Motus Theater JustUs Monologues. And she meets architects who work in the “justice sector” to understand what types of reform efforts exist in this area. Finally, she hopes to visit the Eastern State Penitentiary – which was built in the 1800s and is now a museum – and Alcatraz. These sites will give her historical points of comparison when considering the prison system as it exists today.

McKenzie’s scholarship year will consist of a one-week residency at the Chautauqua Institution in upstate New York with a focus on building a culture of empathy, a two-week residency in Ucross, Wyoming with a focus on studio practice and tours in Fredonia and Alberta. University of the Arts of Canada.

“I am interested in possibly doing collaborative work with artists who are currently or formerly incarcerated. But I’m so early in this process that I’m not sure what it will look like on the other end, ”McKenzie says.

Currently, she teaches a visual arts course with the DU Prison Arts Initiative, which she considers to be an integral part of her artistic practice for her current project.

“The biggest problem for me is, how does institutional architecture work as a form of social control?” She explains. Architecture becomes invisible. It’s something that, as time goes by and as we go through it, we react to it physically and we are shaped by it, but we don’t even realize it … Architecture often becomes neutral, but of course, it is not neutral at all. ”

Speaking about his prison architecture project, McKenzie admits that “it looks like a deviation” from his earlier work. “It’s both consistent and a big change too – which is super exciting,” she says. “I’m basically mid-career at this point so it’s an incredible opportunity that this scholarship has given me.”


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