Art as Catharsis: Introducing the Record Clearance Project’s First Exhibit of Client Artwork

by | Feb 6, 2024 | Community Engagement, Featured

San José State's Record Clearance Project clients are exhibiting their artwork at the DiNapoli Gallery at Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Library. Image courtesy of the Record Clearance Project.

San José State’s Record Clearance Project clients are exhibiting their artwork at the DiNapoli Gallery at Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Library. Image courtesy of the Record Clearance Project.

In March 2023, Diana Carreras was grocery shopping in San José when she noticed an artist sitting outside Safeway with prints of his line drawings, illustrations and comics propped up along the sidewalk. Intrigued, Carreras bought one, a pen and ink piece portraying several musical icons, and struck up a conversation about her work with San José State University’s Record Clearance Project (RCP). 

Within a few months, the artist, Ashante Davis, reached out to learn how to get his criminal record formally expunged, a legal process supported by RCP staff, student assistants and supervising attorneys. As an experienced mentor and survivor of the justice system herself, Carreras recognized a familiar desire to be seen as more than someone with a record. She saw Davis’ potential to rise beyond his past, as well as his talent and drive as an artist and entrepreneur.

Carreras also recognized that Davis’ knack for capturing expression and emotion in art didn’t exist in a vacuum. As a peer mentor for RCP, she meets regularly with men and women at various stages of the record expungement process, some of whom have spent years incarcerated, survived domestic violence or overcome significant trauma both inside and outside of the justice system. One of the most challenging skills for them to learn upon being released from prison, Carreras says, is finding an effective way to channel and communicate how they feel — the hard and the good. In addition to Davis’ unique talent, other clients are artists too: painters, photographers, muralists, mixed media artists of every stripe.

One day, she shared a beautifully handcrafted dreamcatcher that one of her clients had given  her with RCP founder and Justice Studies Professor Margaret “Peggy” Stevenson, and remarked, “I can’t believe how creative they are.” Stevenson’s reply? “Maybe we should show the world.”

And thus an idea was born. RCP administrative coordinator Serey Nouth, ’20 Kinesiology, and student assistant Quetzalli Sanchez, ’24 Justice Studies,  submitted a proposal for an art exhibit at the Jennifer and Philip DiNapoli Gallery on the second floor of San José State’s Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Library. Within a month, the team had assembled the work of five RCP clients or mentees in an exhibition entitled “Artistic Freedom: The Liberating Art of the Formerly Incarcerated.” The exhibition runs the entire month of February, with a special artist reception from 3 to 4 p.m. on Thursday, February 15.

Art as humanity

Ashante Davis

Artist Ashante Davis met RCP mentor Diana Carreras when selling his work outside Safeway. Portrait by Robert C. Bain.

Carreras took Davis to see the exhibit not long after the artwork was installed.

“When I walked Ashante to show him where his pictures were, he froze,” she says. “When I met him at the grocery store, his pictures were lined up all over the ground. At the library, he said, ‘My work went from the ground to the walls of a prestigious library.’”

Among Davis’ ink drawings is one of a man riding down the side of a Bic pen, his arms open in flight. “I feel so honored to be included,” he says of the show, explaining that he hopes it to be the first of many steps toward establishing his own comics label, Ghetto Comics.

Other participating artists include Rodrigo Lara, whose stunning images are created by chiseling portraits into wood; David Davila, who discovered a passion for nature photography after spending many years behind bars; Joey Hernandez, who began drawing with pencil and paper while still incarcerated; and Carrera’s own son Andre Hernandez, who began his mobile art truck project during the pandemic, from which he creates, distributes and teaches others how to create murals using spray paint.

RCP Artists Rodrigo Lara, David Davila, Joey Hernandez and Andre Hernandez.

(L-R) RCP artists Rodrigo Lara, David Davila, Joey Hernandez and Andre Hernandez. Portraits by Robert C. Bain.

“Everybody is human,” says Nouth, adding that the formerly incarcerated sometimes have to work twice as hard to be seen. “Everybody has a history.  In the RCP, we know that everybody deserves a second chance.”

Sanchez adds that the exhibit offers viewers a different perspective, both on the artists and on incarceration itself. 

“I think a lot of the clients have shared similar experiences with confinement — that it can be very mentally depressing,” she says. “They were able to escape with their art and think about happy moments in their lives, whether that’s their children or nature. It allowed them to have moments of reflection where they were able to think about what they wanted to do with their life after they were released. Their artwork humanizes them.”

While this is the first RCP exhibition of client work, Carreras believes this is just the beginning.

“These artists and their work make me very happy,” she says. “They are totally to be admired for their work, not just because of where they have come from, but also because of the dedication they put into their art — it makes you feel something. They found ways to release the things that used to build up in them, and they found their own escape. It turns out that their escape is a beautiful thing.”

The Santa Clara County’s Office of Diversion and Reentry Services made the exhibit possible. The County and other funders support the service navigation work that Carreras and other mentors do in guiding people from custody to self-sufficiency.

About the DiNapoli Gallery

Located on the second floor of King Library, the Jennifer and Philip DiNapoli exhibit gallery is a dedicated community space aimed at hosting educational, cultural, and thought-provoking art exhibits year-round for the San José State University and San José community.

Exhibit proposals for the 2025 calendar year are open. For information about the DiNapoli Exhibit Gallery (second floor), contact Mariah Ramsour at Display your artwork at the SJSU King Library’s Jennifer and Philip DiNapoli Gallery (second floor) by submitting an exhibit proposal for 2025. Open to university affiliates and community members.

Read more about the Record Clearance Project in Washington Square: The Magazine.