An Incarcerated Quaker Artist’s Feminist Awakening
Corey Devon Arthur is an artist and a published writer, a feminist, and a Quaker. He has been incarcerated in New York State since 1997 for crimes he committed at the age of 19. I have been writing to Corey since the beginning of the pandemic in 2020, and I’m aware of his capacity to build a strong network of people outside of prison. This includes a group of seven women, including myself, whom he identifies as having had a particular influence on his journey of healing. The women appear to have certain things in common: we support him as he practices accountability, and we are feminists.
Being a curious person with a thirst for knowledge, Corey has delved into feminism, reading authors such as bell hooks and Eve Ensler. He names how the prison system, epitomizing the worst of the patriarchy, causes suffering for incarcerated people through violence, control, and domination. He describes how many years of being thrown in solitary confinement and beaten did nothing to change him for the better but instead brutalized him. Corey calls for a feminist perspective to infiltrate prisons and transform the patriarchal culture within them. He aspires for feminists of all genders to work for the freedom of people at the margins.
In the spring of last year, Corey wrote to me: “I want to do an art exhibition. The theme would be feminism—changing how we exercise power within our criminal justice system.” Corey wanted to dedicate the exhibition to the seven important women who have influenced his life. He had already floated his idea to several people, and it was met with little enthusiasm. I felt drawn to his vision, particularly the theme of transformation. I held the project in the Light and began by reaching out to the community of Friends at Brooklyn Meeting in New York City.
There are a number of artists in the Brooklyn Friends community, and one of them, Sasha Chavchavadze, showed interest. I sent her a photo of a piece of Corey’s artwork, and she took a leap of faith and reached out to him to explore his idea further. Spirit moved in deep ways as the two artists communicated, and a plan began to emerge. Other people and organizations now came onboard. Empowerment Avenue (a collective of incarcerated writers and artists), Fulton Art Fair, and Brooklyn Quakers signed on as sponsors. Corey steered the project at every step via phone calls and emails. This truly was an “inside-outside” collaboration, and many New York Yearly Meeting (NYYM) Quakers became involved. NYYM has a long history of Friends in prison ministry, including going into prison to worship with incarcerated men and supporting people upon reentry. But this felt different as we reached back into the prison and began to actualize Corey’s artistic vision and healing message. Notably we did this without involving the NY State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision in any way.
The paintings were soon ready: more than 20 portraits of feminist icons. One collection, Blood in My Eye—inspired by the book of the same name written by prison activist George L. Jackson—included paintings of Kathy Boudin, Angela Davis, Lolita Lebrón, and Assata Shakur, each with a teardrop of blood. Arrangements were made for the pieces to be physically picked up from the package room at Otisville prison. Prisons are inherently unsafe places, and at no time were there guarantees that the paintings would survive. We therefore breathed a huge sigh of relief when they made it to the free world intact. Funds were raised to pay for framing, renting gallery space, and printing a catalog. Volunteers stepped up to provide refreshments. Invitations were issued far and wide.
“The theme would be feminism—changing how we exercise power within our criminal justice system.” Corey wanted to dedicate the exhibition to the seven important women who have influenced his life.
The stage was set, and on March 4, 2023, more than 100 people gathered at My Gallery NYC for the opening of Corey Devon Arthur’s She Told Me Save the Flower art exhibition (the title is based on a poem he wrote that was inspired by the life of Anne Frank, whose diary Corey read while in solitary confinement). It had been a rainy day, but the skies cleared for our early evening event in a Brooklyn neighborhood well-known to Corey before he became a fallen son. We were surrounded by fierce feminist women on the walls. The artwork was captivating: the portraits displayed bright colors, expressive faces, and intricate details. Corey had brought us all together that night to witness his story. He couldn’t be with us, of course. At 6:30 p.m., we held a moment of silence for absent friends and held the victim of Corey’s crime of conviction, Jonathan M. Levin, in the Light. It was an intense moment.
And then Corey called in! Access to the phone in prison is highly competitive and can be a source of conflict. People willing to use violence often get maximum use of the phones, and so it was a small miracle that Corey was able to negotiate ten minutes of phone time on a Saturday evening without incident. My hand shook as I held up my cell phone on speaker. Loud applause ran through the crowd followed by a deep quiet so that he could be heard. Corey spoke for a couple of minutes, and then unexpectedly yielded the phone to his friend Kirk. Both men gave ministry as to what this moment meant to them. There were two mothers paying special attention in the crowd at the gallery. Corey’s mom wasn’t surprised to hear Corey speak, but Kirk’s mom had come to the exhibition at the last minute. She was amazed when her son came on the phone, and when Kirk heard later that she had been at the gallery, tears were shed all around.
When Corey reached out to me last spring, he said, “This is the next step in my evolution and redemption. I’ve never done anything like this. I feel compelled to try. Will you help me to help others?” It is central to our Quaker faith that there is that of God in all people. We therefore lift up a belief in the human potential to become a different person from the individual who committed a crime. Corey has been incarcerated for 25 years for a robbery and murder that he was convicted of at the age of 19. He is deeply remorseful and recognizes the devastating consequences of his actions for the victim’s family. Over the years, a community of people has connected with Corey and believed in the possibility of change and that his crime is not the essence of his identity.
As an artist, Corey exemplifies the talent that exists behind bars. As a feminist and a Quaker, he lives out values that challenge the patriarchal, carceral culture. He believes in the power of community and connection to affect “person-to-person healing.” The Save the Flower exhibition is a manifestation of how an outside group can embody the vision of an incarcerated person, and it was a powerful experience for all participants. The art show ended in March, but the initiative continues. bell hooks, in her book Feminism Is for Everybody, says, “To be ‘feminist’ in any authentic sense of the term is to want for all people, female and male, liberation from sexist role patterns, domination, and oppression.” For Corey and his supporters, transforming the prison system and continuing to spread a message of healing remain priorities for our future work together.