Tatiana von Furstenberg Curates an Exhibit of Art From Inside Prisons

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Tatiana von Furstenberg Curates an Exhibit of Art From Inside Prisons

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Dressed in loosefitting pants, a military jacket and black-and-cream heels, her hair curly and buoyant, Tatiana von Furstenberg walked languidly through an exhibition at Abrons Arts Center on the Lower East Side on a sunny November afternoon.

Drawings in all manners of style — pointillism, minimalism, Art Deco, realism, Pop Art — covered the walls. She strode past studies of nudes, portraits of Rihanna, depictions of Jesus and more, pausing to comment on the ones that caught her eye.

Ms. von Furstenberg, 45, the daughter of the fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg (and her first husband, Prince Egon von Furstenberg), first came into the public eye in 1975 at age 4, when her mother released Tatiana, a perfume named after her. As might be expected of someone with a royal father and a glamorous, high-profile mother, Ms. von Furstenberg attended boarding school in Europe, grew up in homes around the world, spoke several languages and was even photographed by Richard Avedon for Egoïste, a French magazine. She was well on her way to being positioned as, if not DVF, and least TVF.

But on this day, Ms. von Furstenberg, wearing nothing designed by her mother, didn’t have either fashion or glamour on the mind. She wasn’t at Abrons to pick out a piece to adorn her homes in Los Angeles and New York. Nor was it her own art she was showing off.

The drawings on the walls, most made with pencil or pen and one with Kool-Aid and an asthma inhaler, were contributions from people in the L.G.B.T. community who are, or were recently, incarcerated in the American prison system. For Ms. von Furstenberg, they reflect a calling very different from her mother’s.

The show, called “On the Inside” and on view through Dec. 18, has been more than four years in the making and is a collaboration between Ms. von Furstenberg and Black and Pink, a grass-roots organization that provides a network of support for L.G.B.T. inmates and works to abolish the prison system.

“I’m not a volunteering type of person,” said Ms. von Furstenberg, who began studying media and comparative literature at Brown University at 16, and whose past projects include opening Steinberg and Sons, a clothing boutique in Los Angeles that’s now closed; recording music as the lead singer in a band called Playdate; and, more recently, writing, directing and producing two films, one a short (“Tyrolean Riviera”) and one a feature (“Tanner Hall”).

So how did a nonvolunteering type end up doing something that so closely resembles volunteering?

“I didn’t know what I wanted to do after ‘Tanner Hall,’ so I went to a gestalt storytelling workshop, and we talked how important it is to cultivate a culture of compassion,” she said. “Stories connect people and can ignite humanity.”

Though Ms. von Furstenberg’s interests and activities have ranged across quite a spectrum (her best friend and creative partner on “Tanner Hall,” Francesca Gregorini, said, “She’s always been, out of all of our friends, the most of a Renaissance woman”), she realized her drive to tell stories was the common thread.

And while in the past those stories have reflected her own life — “Tanner Hall,” for example, was loosely based on some of her experiences at boarding school — this time Ms. von Furstenberg decided to share the tales of others, in part because of a connection she rarely reveals.

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Ms. von Furstenberg has a genetic muscular disease that makes her tire quickly and sometimes requires her to use a wheelchair. As she sees it, living with those constraints as a child, and being unable to participate in basic activities like swimming and running, gave her an enhanced ability to empathize with those who are marginalized.

So when she stumbled upon Black and Pink, an idea rapidly formed. As part of its efforts to connect the L.G.B.T. community in prison, the organization puts out a monthly newsletter that features writing and artwork by inmates around the country.

Ms. von Furstenberg realized that giving a public platform to some of the art she saw in the booklet’s pages could bring the conversation about prison reform to a larger audience. So she placed a call for art in the newsletter, and over the next few years, more than 4,000 submissions poured in, all through snail mail.

Because of prison rules, Ms. von Furstenberg had to donate to the commissary account of the artists whose work she accepted instead of paying them directly. (Those who submitted pieces requested that their work be considered a donation and the monetary payment a gift.) After poring over the contenders, most of which were done on recycled copy paper, she loosely organized the show into categories: self-portraits, love, religion, warriors and celebrity.

In the art center, the drawings hung in simple frames against a backdrop that featured certain pieces from each category blown up to the size of a mural. Quotations that Ms. von Furstenberg pulled from letters the artists sent her were displayed in large type on the walls. In the center of the exhibition, Ms. von Furstenberg built a room about the size of a cell and placed the non-P.G. art inside.

Jennifer Mayo, who was in prison for six years and sent in nine drawings, was glad to see that the pieces in the show weren’t what she called “prison art.” She explained that artists inside often make commissioned works in exchange for funds that allow them to purchase basic necessities in the commissary like deodorant and shampoo. The resulting art is worthy in its own right, but not necessarily an expression of the personal struggles of those incarcerated.

“This is stuff that’s not discussed,” she said. “Inside, you’re just trying to survive from day to day. There’s not a lot of time to get into how it’s affecting you. I’ve been home for almost two years, and I’m still sorting through.”

The reasons that American society sometimes overlooks the psychological and emotional turmoil wrought by imprisonment are various: political murk, economic pressures, lack of time. When it comes to the time issue, Ms. von Furstenberg, who doles out her physical energy watchfully because of her disease, seems particularly well equipped to shine a light on that which is lost in the blur of life’s everyday demands.

It’s a skill she has long cultivated through her relationship with her mother. “She’s very busy, and I’m on a totally different pace and wavelength than her,” she said. “But when we talk, she actually takes it down and really listens and lets me unpack everything to her. I force her to slow down and really listen to the details.”

That, in essence, is what Ms. von Furstenberg is trying to do for the general public with the exhibition as well: force those who are on the outside to see and acknowledge the details of living behind bars. To understand that those who are incarcerated are multidimensional people with the same spectrum of desires, dreams and needs as anyone else.

For this, her background and social standing aren’t exactly useless. “Everything is in line for me to facilitate making a main stage for voices that are otherwise forgotten,” Ms. von Furstenberg said.

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