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Artnet: How One Artist Turned a Wrongful Conviction and a Prison Sentence Into Powerful Performance Art

Sherrill Roland during his performance of The Jumpsuit Project, (2017). Courtesy of Alvaro Escalante.
Brian Boucher

The ninth of August 2012 started out unremarkable for artist Sherrill Roland, but his life would change forever with a phone call he got that day. A detective reached him as he was preparing for his first year of the MFA program at the University of North Carolina Greensboro, and told him that he faced felony charges in Washington, D.C. (The artist declines to name the charges or the identity of his accuser.) Confused and shocked, Roland maintained his innocence. The charges were later downgraded to a misdemeanor, resulting in a two-day trial before a judge, not a jury. Based only on testimony from the two parties and a detective, the judge ruled him guilty, and he was sentenced to a year in prison. Roland would lobby for a retrial in order to clear his name, but before that could even happen, his attorneys turned up exculpatory evidence that the charges were fabricated. He was released and his record was wiped clean—but not before he had spent 10 months and two weeks in prison.

Roland was initially hesitant to discuss his ordeal. But rather than hide the experience, he created a performance art project about it. In The Jumpsuit Project, he dealt with his experience in public, wearing a prison-issue orange jumpsuit whenever he was on campus during his second year of the MFA program to provoke conversation about how people view those whom society has labeled criminal.

Since then, the artist has fielded invitations to stage another iteration of the performance at venues from the Studio Museum in Harlem to Los Angeles’s Otis College of Art and Design, as well as the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction. In this version, he lays down orange tape on the floor to approximate a prison cell and discusses his experience with those who step inside.

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Sherrill Roland participated in Otis College's inaugural 2017 L.A. Summer Residency, bringing artists and designers from all over the world to explore and create work in the unique and culturally diverse arts community of Los Angeles. Applications for the 2018 program are open and a limited number of fellowships are available for those that apply by the January 15, 2018,  priority deadline. 

Image: Sherrill Roland during his performance of The Jumpsuit Project, (2017). Courtesy of Alvaro Escalante.