Ericka Scott, a curator and fellow at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, is working with her husband, who is incarcerated, to mount “Restoration,” an exhibition of art work by people in prison. (Kevin Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Restorative art on the inside and out

Curator Ericka Scott organizes exhibition of works by prisoners

Ericka Scott was in the middle of curating an exhibit of artwork by men that her husband is incarcerated with when the coronavirus began to spread inside and outside prison walls.

“He was making arrangements, talking to the guys. He was my project manager,” said Scott of her husband, Pride. “I could see the joy through the phone when we decided to do the art show. It brought him closer. Things changed with COVID and I don’t have as much contact with him,” she said

The prison art exhibit, titled “Restoration,” will be presented online later this summer as part of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts fellows program in which Scott was chosen to participate. Providing an opportunity for families of the incarcerated and the public to engage in dialogue about America’s prisons, the discussion comes at a critical time, as the virus courses unabated through California’s system. Like thousands of others with spouses and family members on the inside, Scott’s living in a wait-and-see, day-by-day situation, unsure when the next call will come.

“They’ve been on lockdown pretty consistently since the announcement of COVID. It’s nerve wracking for everyone,” she said.

Though as she waits, she moves forward in her overall mission to connect people through art. She established the mobile service, Honey Art, to provide supplies and facilitators to communities that are traditionally without access and exposure to art, including children of the incarcerated and low-income neighborhoods. But while the benefit of art therapies has been well-documented, Scott wasn’t always so immersed in arts advocacy. An alumna of University of California, Berkeley with a background in business development, she supported her family consulting and coaching women and people of color launching their small businesses.

“I didn’t really understand people who spent all their time drawing or painting or producing plays. I was disconnected to why people appreciate art,” she said. Her own series of “art awakenings,” as she called them, opened her field of vision and pulled into focus for her the ways art can create and build community.

“I was working at the African American Arts and Culture Complex as an executive administrator and youth development coordinator and started coming into closer contact with artists,” she said, when the director of African American Shakespeare Company asked if her children could perform in an upcoming production.

“They were excited. They showed me another side to the arts,” she said.

Her own hands-on experience with painting, an unusual service offered at a gallery space she’d rented for a birthday party, further connected the dots in her mind.

“It took me an hour to put my brush on the canvas to paint a butterfly but I felt so accomplished. I thought, ‘I bet there are other people like me who would love to be creative but because of their life circumstances haven’t tried it,’” she said. She started by organizing an art party at a church event. “One thing led to another,” she said, when Pride told her about the film “The Last Ride.”

“The lead character’s dream to open an art gallery was very similar to mine,” said Scott.

Ericka Scott sees her herself on a mission to connect people through art. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Both Pride and Ericka were raised in the Fillmore District. Scott’s parents divorced when she was 13.

“When my mom could afford it we went to private school and when we couldn’t, we went to public,” she said, recalling her time at St. Rose Academy.

“I was so well taken care of. It was predominantly white and I felt really safe, loved, was vice president of the class, a cheerleader. It was a great experience,” she said. Her time at Washington High School was a different story.

“It was huge, dark, and dirty, like night and day,” she said. She recalled being the only Black student enrolled in advanced classes filled with Asian and white kids.

“This one incident still stands out for me. We were reading “Gone With The Wind,” and the teacher looked at me and said, ‘Ericka, you’re going to read this part,’ and it was the maid. You’re already on pins and needles with all eyes on you in the classroom. I was mortified. My heart sank,” she said.

In the guidance counselor’s office, she was denied access to a college advisor and was told, “You don’t need to go over there. You’ll probably work when you get out of high school.”

Scott said, “I work now, and I’ll work when I go to college. It wasn’t a matter of if but where. My family had drilled it into me: That’s what we did, worked and went to school.”

Her husband’s life took a different turn. “Pride had a lot of hardship,” said Scott, referring to the causes and conditions that led to his arrest for armed robbery. Though she’s attempted to research the details of the two trials that resulted in his 20-year sentence, there wasn’t much revealed. She concluded Pride, and thousands of men like him, are locked inside a system that jails a disproportionate number of Black men, or as Scott said, “Makes sure young Black boys are given time.” Mass incarceration’s racialized system of control is often referred to as “The New Jim Crow,” the title of a book by author Michelle Alexander.

The couple knew each other and dated before they went separate ways, married others and had children. By the time Pride and Ericka reconnected, he was divorced and she had been a widow for five years following her first husband’s murder in 2004 when she was pregnant with their daughter and their son was just a babe in arms.

“The minute I heard Pride’s voice, I knew,” she said. “We got reacquainted for four years and we’ve been married for six.” They wed in 2014 at Solano State Prison. One of the prison’s inmates, Joseph Nichols, currently serving 29 years, drew a likeness of the couple celebrating their union. It is hoped the “Restoration” exhibit will generate funds to compensate the incarcerated artists for their contributions to the show.

Ericka and Pride got married at Solano State Prison in 2014. (Courtesy Ericka Scott)

“There is so much shame, sometimes it’s not easy for me to say, ‘Oh my husband’s in prison,’” said Scott, who’s continued to manifest her dream of connecting and creating community.

“It’s really a full circle moment,” she said of the art show and the triumph of her college-bound son graduating from high school this year, supported on his journey by his half brothers and sisters, step siblings and others.

“Pride has biological kids he loves dearly and he loves my kids too. They all tuned into the graduation, the mothers too,” she said.

“We all have really good relationships. It’s incredible. It might sound strange but we’re a kind of family.”

Denise Sullivan is an author, cultural worker and editor of “Your Golden Sun Still Shines: San Francisco Personal Histories & Small Fictions.” She is a guest columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of the Examiner. Follow her at www.denisesullivan.com and on Twitter @4DeniseSullivan.

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