A Jumpsuit to Start a Dialogue

January 22, 2019
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Sherrill Roland and his art exhibit The Jumpsuit Project will visit Monmouth University Jan. 29 to highlight ideas about mass incarceration and the U.S. justice system.
Courtesy: The Jumpsuit Project

By Mary Ann Bourbeau

WEST LONG BRANCH – In August 2012, Sherrill Roland was about to enter the first year of his MFA program at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro when he suddenly received a phone call informing him that he faced felony charges in Washington D.C.

This was the beginning of a year filled with confusion, fear and frustration as Roland struggled to find out where these charges stemmed from because the courts would not name his accuser. He managed to continue on with school that year, all the while dealing with lawyers and reporting back to the D.C. courts. It wasn’t until his trial began that he finally learned who his accuser was. And with little time to prove his character and his innocence, he was sentenced to a year in prison.

“I felt helpless,” said Roland. “I was in disbelief. I was telling the truth. I could not believe this was happening to me.”

Eventually, the justice system determined that Roland was innocent and released him from prison, but by that time he had served 10 months and two weeks of his one-year sentence. Roland, 34, will tell his story at Monmouth University’s Woodrow Wilson Hall Jan. 29 with an art exhibit he created.

The Jumpsuit Project challenges ideas about mass incarceration, helping to bring about an understanding of prisons and the United States justice system. The experience also opened his eyes to the effect incarceration has on those behind bars, as well as their family and friends. “I went into prison judging the other men by the misconceptions we have,” he said. “When I got to know who they really were, it opened my world up a lot. You can’t judge a book by its cover. Everyone is capable of making a mistake.”

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In addition to the frustration of being wrongfully incarcerated, Roland had to deal with the realities of daily prison life. “It was terrible,” he said. “All the small things you take for granted – access to soap and a washcloth. You turn on the shower and there’s no hot and cold. There was one knob and you never knew if it was going to be scalding hot or icy cold.” He ate only at specified times and spent 23 hours a day in a 7-by-9-foot cell. He was issued two pairs of under wear, two pairs of socks, two shirts and an orange jumpsuit.

When he was finally exonerated, Roland found it difficult to pick up life where he left off. He thought about the things that could never be taken from him – family, friends and his education. He returned to college, but wasn’t sure he could go back to creating art. “I felt like everywhere I went, I was taking my prison experience, like I was wearing an orange jumpsuit,” he said. He came up with the idea of wearing an orange jumpsuit around campus each day as a thesis project, documenting the reactions of the people he encountered. These days, Roland takes an iteration of this project on the road.

In The Jumpsuit Project, he puts orange tape on the floor to approximate the size of his prison cell. He sits in this “box” and openly discusses his experience and other issues about prison with anyone who steps inside. And that orange jumpsuit is there for all to see. Roland has taken The Jumpsuit Project to museums and universities all across the country. “In a funny way, the jail experience has given me the confidence to go out there and face my fears,” he said. “Although I hated the experience, I’m thankful for the perspective I got along the way. My story isn’t unique, but what is unique is that I have an outlet through art. It puts me in a position to help others and for that, I’m grateful.”

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The Center for the Arts at Monmouth University will host Sherrill Roland’s Jumpsuit Project at 4:30 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 29 in the Wilson Hall auditorium. While on campus, Roland will also lead a sculpture workshop with students about socially engaged art. The Jumpsuit Project is part of the university’s ArtNow: Performance, Art and Technology visiting artist series. It is free and open to the public.

“We are interested in bringing contemporary artists to campus who work at the intersections of art, technology and performance to engage with critical issues of our time,” said Corey Dzenko, assistant professor of art history at Monmouth University. “As faculty, we also strive to host guests who will work closely with our students.”

Dzenko knew of Roland’s experience and artwork from her time teaching in North Carolina. “In addition to making very thought-provoking artwork, the topic of his The Jumpsuit Project aligns with many of our courses,” she said. “Many faculty from across campus emphasize social justice of various forms in their classrooms, so we thought Roland would be a great guest this year under ArtNow’s seasonal theme, ‘Performing Social Change.’

For more information, visit monmouth.edu/mca and jumpsuitproject.com.

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