Mary DeWitt: Portraits of Women Serving Life

0 Flares 0 Flares ×

MDeWitt4[9]Mary DeWitt. “Portrait of Avis Lee.” 2014.  Oil and graphite on mylar.



An 18-year-old Avis Lee was asked to be a lookout for her older brother and his friends while they committed an armed robbery. “What do I have to do?” she asked.

She was told that her job was to whistle if she saw anyone coming.

The robbery took an unexpected turn. There was a tussle and the victim was shot. Her brother and the others fled. Avis stayed behind, flagged down a bus, and called for help for the wounded man. Ten hours later, the victim died.

Avis was a willing participant in a crime for which she was assigned to pay her debt in prison. But, 35 years later—despite her exemplary record, her dedication to service from behind bars, and the fact that she did not commit the murder—she is still serving a life sentence without parole at the State Correctional Institution in Cambridge Springs, Pennyslvania.

Her recent request for a hearing before the parole board was denied. Lee will not be granted even a glimmer of an opportunity to demonstrate the evolved woman she has become. This common and recurring scenario would grow to compel Mary DeWitt’s work.

MaryDeWitt. WebsiteA mosaic featuring a selection of visual and audio portraits Mary DeWitt has created over the years of women serving life sentences. [Image courtesy of the artist via]

Through audio and visual representations, Mary DeWitt has been profiling twenty similarly imprisoned women since 1994 when she received a New Forms Regional National Endowment for the Arts Grant that offered her the option to work with children or with people in prison. DeWitt decided that her talents would be best utilized in the prison system, and quickly discovered that lifersthose serving life sentences—were most receptive to the creative process.

DeWitt’s work is not as much about innocence as it is about humanity. The indignity suffered by these women lies in the severity and permanence of their punishments, and the near complete erasure of their identities in the process.

In the state of Pennsylvania, all life sentences are without parole and only the governor can grant a pardon. With governors increasingly unwilling to put themselves politically at-risk, pardons have become fewer and farther between. This system bodes particularly poorly for women, whose maximum security facilities are tucked away in exceptionally remote locations. These women are effectively hidden and silenced.

“Because of their total  lack of visibility. . . no resources and extremely low self-esteem, they just are warehoused in prison for decades,” says the artist. DeWitt’s portraits give face and voice to a flawed and degenerating system in which these women would otherwise be invisible.

This work started with visits to Pennsylvania penitentiaries, where DeWitt would speak with women serving life sentences. Her subjects were recommended by prison staffers for a number of reasons, including discrepancies within their cases, outstanding behavior and service. Each of the women would have been highly eligible for parole almost anywhere else in the country. Many of them were victims as well—some battered and even forced to witness or assist in fatal crimes. But, DeWitt’s work is not as much about innocence as it is about humanity. The indignity suffered by these women lies in the severity and permanence of their punishments, and the near complete erasure of their identities in the process.

[youtube width=”650″ height=”375″][/youtube]

Avis Lee describes her life in 1979 and her life in present day after serving 34 years in prison. A visual portrait of Lee unfolds as she shares her story in this audio and visual work by DeWitt. (“Avis Lee, Then and Now,” 2014)

In the beginning, DeWitt was able to sit with her subjects and render them from life, while recording hours of testimony. Harsher rules—aimed at protecting victims’ families and further disappearing people in prison from the public eye—have more recently prevented her from having close contact with the women. The artist has had to be more creative and discreet about garnering footage and keeping the project alive.

Some of the women speak about their lives in prison. Some share stories about their families, lives before prison, and even dreams. Some talk about the transformative work they have been doing while incarcerated, and some discuss their crimes. These conversations have been on-going and recorded for decades, with DeWitt repainting the women’s portraits at various stages of imprisonment, through a series she calls Then and Now. Their images and words have appeared on canvas, tiles, glass and in public murals. Their voices can now be heard at exhibitions and have, ultimately, found a permanent platform on YouTube. Many of the women are hearing themselves for the first time and have, through this work, begun to recognize their own self-worth.

Mary DeWitt.MuralMary DeWitt in front of the public mural of Cyd Berger who is currently serving a life sentence without parole. The mural is located at Kaplan’s Bakery in Philadelphia. Photo by Andrea Brown, 2012.

DeWitt’s overarching goal is make her subjects “visible, real, known and valued.” She adds, “I want them to be very vivid, in their own words. . . .using their own faces.” She hopes to bring this project before the parole board one day, and is optimistic that the incoming Governor, Tom Wolf, will turn a kinder ear to issues faced by lifers.

Moving forward, DeWitt has juvenile lifers clearly in her focus. (Pennsylvania has more juveniles serving life sentences than any other state.) She also hopes to work with veterans convicted of serious crimes. She currently has several works on exhibit at the Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral and will be featured in a group exhibition, The Bigger Picture, presented by the Arts Council of Princeton, NJ, from January 17 to March 14, 2015.

Misha McGlownMisha McGlown is an artist, arts educator, curator and active member of the creative community in Harlem, New York City. She currently serves as Program Director for the LeRoy Neiman Art Center and has managed programs for The Children’s Art Carnival (NY), Artists Collective for Social Change (NJ) and Congreso Girls’ Center (PA). She has exhibited and curated throughout New York City and has been awarded artistic grants by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, Puffin Foundation, and Harlem Arts Alliance. 




OF NOTE Magazine is free to readers, free of advertising, and free of subscriptions—all made possible by generous supporters like you. Your tax tax-deductible gift will help us continue to feature innovative and emerging global artists using the arts as tools for social change. OF NOTE Magazine is a fiscally sponsored organization of the New York Foundation for the Arts, a 501 (c) (3), tax-exempt organization. All donations are 100% tax-deductible to the full extent of the law. 

0 Flares Facebook 0 Twitter 0 0 Flares ×


36,576 Responses to “Mary DeWitt: Portraits of Women Serving Life”
  1. Wendell says:

    Pleased to meet you Even developed nations would find it almost impossible to cope with such burgeoning increases.

  2. Emery says:

    I’d like , please It is brought to you by an award-winning team of disabled journalists – Emma Tracey and Damon Rose – with help from guest contributors who all have personal connections to disability.

  3. Kristofer says:

    I’m from England Daniel Diekema, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Iowa and president of the Society for Healthcare Epidemiology of America, said Frieden’s early assurances had led many hospitals to become complacent and think they did not need an Ebola plan

  4. Lincoln says:

    Go travelling Formula E said on their website that Montagny had been barred from all forms of motorsport for a period of two years following a decision by the International Automobile Federation’s anti-doping committee in Paris.

  5. Eusebio says:

    A First Class stamp The Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law released a report this week saying about 24,000 transgender voters in 10 states with government-issued photo ID requirements for voting could be prevented from casting ballots in November because they don’t have an updated ID that reflects their current gender.

  6. Tyree says:

    Punk not dead One of them said his health was failing and another described his situation as “urgent.”

  7. Evan says:

    I’m on business Perhaps I’m being harsh, but I walked around a couple of cemeteries and saw more life

  8. Victor says:

    I hate shopping Following Hendon’s death, the charge was upgraded to chemical endangermaent exposure to a child causing death

  9. Thanh says:

    A Second Class stamp Tahmooressi family spokesman Jonathan Franks said the judge acted on a recommendation from the PGR, the Mexican Attorney General’s Office

  10. Jerald says:

    No, I’m not particularly sporty He made his comments to coincide with the publication of the IMO’s pre-Budget submission, which highlighted the fact that since 2008, €4 billion has been cut from the health budget

  11. Adalberto says:

    I like watching football A dozen years after that interview, Wallace, the acclaimed author of “Infinite Jest,” killed himself.

  12. Trinidad says:

    I didn’t go to university But maybe tidal and wind-driven currents are enough to stir everything up and mix it.”

  13. Willian says:

    Could you tell me the number for ? This involves participants continually running between two lines that are 20 metres apart in time to recorded bleeps.

  14. Efrain says:

    Go travelling Closely held Cox Communications said its modern Contourguide, launched in all markets in August 2013, has luredcustomers to new programs

  15. Shirley says:

    this post is fantastic There is still a commitment on the part of Cookson to apply a fit and proper persons test to cycling, but it is fiendishly difficult to apply retrospectively given the number of former doped riders working in cycling

  16. Olivia says:

    How much notice do you have to give? Gossain remembers one listener, Harish Kothari, whoafterward offered to write scripts for the programmes and hasnow completed half a dozen which are being reviewed by thestation.

  17. Tomas says:

    An accountancy practice “But in theatre you arrive at 11am and leave at 11pm, and work all day in a small, dark room in the bowels of a building

  18. Daryl says:

    I saw your advert in the paper If the company can successfully develop the reusable rocket technology, founder Elon Musk claims that the cost of spaceflight could be reduced by a factor of 100, possibly making the colonization of Mars economically viable.

  19. Bernard says:

    Could I ask who’s calling? The Times reported that Petraeus has indicated to the Justice Department that he has no interest in a plea deal that would enable him to avoid a trial

  20. Seth says:

    Have you got a current driving licence? Funny thing is, his night looked an awful lot like the last biggest-ever sporting event in Cleveland

  21. Tracy says:

    I’m from England It also featured American journalist Glenn Greenwald and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who spoke via video link from London.

  22. Jeffry says:

    How do I get an outside line? “Russia’s economic and diplomatic isolation will continue to grow as long as its actions do not live up to its words.”

  23. Alfonzo says:

    Thanks for calling TheSwedish netminder had given up four or more goals twice in his previous 20 games.

  24. Kenny says:

    Could you transfer $1000 from my current account to my deposit account? His heart and champion’s fight go into helping find a cure for a disease that shows once and for all that it does not care who you are

  25. Erin says:

    I’ve just graduated “They were the more physical team,” said defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul

  26. Aidan says:

    I’m afraid that number’s ex-directory CHICAGO, Dec 10 (Reuters) – The alleged head of theChicago-area branch of a Mexican drug cartel faces federalcharges with seven others for a plot that involved carryingheroin and cocaine from Mexico to the United States in passengerbuses, prosecutors said on Wednesday.(USA-CHICAGO/DRUGTRAFFICKING-MEXICO, moved at 4:37 p.m., 325words)


0 Flares Facebook 0 Twitter 0 0 Flares ×