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Quests for Authenticity

Artists in  California Prisons

United States

by Peter Merts

Published September 2023

This project shows incarcerated men and women creating and performing artworks in California prisons; beyond that, it portrays the passion, creativity, and humanity of those artists.

Upon first hearing of these classes, I was intrigued by the incongruity of artistic expression in such a regulated, disruptive, and sometimes violent environment; I also felt an empathy for incarcerated men and women, many of whom had experienced childhood trauma. Beyond these factors, it just felt like a good fit—a project about art as a response to troubled lives.

From the beginning I was impressed with the commitment, risk-taking, enthusiasm, and technical mastery of the artists as they addressed topics of identity, culture, family, and society.

Studies have demonstrated the effectiveness of art practice in improving the attitudes and behaviors of incarcerated men and women, but here I go beyond these empirical matters. My aim is to illuminate the humanity of these incarcerated men and women, who are working so passionately to express themselves, to recover from their traumas, and to lead more fulfilling lives.

Peter Merts

Peter Merts’s photography spans documentary, portrait, and fine art forms and has been published in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and others. In 2015, Peter and Dr. Larry Brewster published Paths of Discovery—Art Practice and Its Impact in California State Prisons (second edition.) In Spring 2022, Peter published a monograph of his photographs as Ex Crucible: The Passion of Incarcerated Artists. An archive of his prison arts photographs can be found on

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