Ohio State’s Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum will soon welcome two new exhibits, each taking a different approach toward political discourse through illustration.
“Windows on Death Row” and “What A Hoot! A Mike Peters Retrospective,” are set to open on Saturday.
The former looks at capital punishment with 70 works of art from inside and outside prison walls. “Windows on Death Row” is a traveling exhibition and has made stops in Los Angeles at the University of Southern California and more recently in Geneva, Switzerland and Oslo, Norway.
Seventeen American political cartoonists contributed to the exhibit, including Ohio-born Nick Anderson. It also includes work from inmates currently on death row in the United States. In 2014, curators Patrick Chappatte and Anne-Frederique Widmann reached out to 3,000 inmates, 30 of whom responded with artwork and letters.
“We asked death row inmates to draw and paint their daily lives, to paint also their personal experiences, to be witness of what they are going through,” Widmann said.
Artist letters and statements are included with their work in the exhibit.
Harold Wayne Nichols, a Texas inmate, submitted a work called “Starry Night.” The work depicts an image of a starry sky with an inscription that reads, “It has been over 26 years since I last saw the stars in the open sky.”
He included a note explaining that prison has taught him to appreciate the little things in life. In his letter accompanying “Starry Night,” he questions the audience, “When was the last time you drove out beyond the lights of the city just to see the stars? I hope you will take time to do that and to enjoy the other and the little things life has to offer.”
A piece by Kenneth Reams, who has been on death row for 2 years, titled “The Last Mile,” visualizes the final corridor inmates must walk to the execution chamber.
“The journey from cell to door is short in steps, but the distance is psychologically vast. At the end of this hallway is an imposing and ominous door. On the other side of that door lies oblivion and eternity,” Reams wrote in a letter accompanying the work.
Kevin Cooper’s “It’s a Generation Thing in America” argues that race is still an issue in the death penalty today. His piece shows three black inmates — a father, son and grandson — who are all in prison at the same time, and a fourth man in the foreground wondering if a similar fate awaits him.
Arnold Prieto sent several works of art before his execution in January of 2105, including a drawing of a skull titled “Any Questions?!!” It was the last piece he was able to create before his execution.
“They’ll be here when I’m no more,” Prieto wrote in his letters about the drawings.
The exhibit also contains one work of art by an inmate who was found not guilty after spending 28 years in prison, 20 of those on death row. Ndume Olatushani was released in 2012.
“Our idea is not to tell anyone what to think about this issue, but it was more that we thought people knew a lot about the execution but didn’t know much about why inmates stay so long in prison before they are executed, if they are executed,” Widmann said. “What is the implication of living in solitary confinement for years? What is the impact of race and economy?”
The second exhibit, “What A Hoot! A Mike Peters Retrospective,” also addresses social issues through the work of Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonish Mike Peters.
Peters is known for being the creator of comic strip “Mother Goose and Grimm,” which first distributed in the 1980s.
“Mike Peters is an important cartoonist with long-time ties to Ohio,” said Lucy Shelton Caswell, curator at the library. “He has spoken on campus several times and the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum holds a large collection of his work. This retrospective exhibition is intended to celebrate his career from the late 1960s to the present.”
The exhibit starts with a section exploring how Peters’ style changed and matured over his career. Included are strips of “Mother Goose and Grimm,” and an animated version of the comic that aired on CBS in the ‘90s.
Two more sections of the exhibit focus on editorial cartoons spanning nine presidencies, Lyndon B. Johnson through Barack Obama, and on political and social issues that Peters has commented on including racism, women’s rights and LGBTQ issues. Caswell said these cartoons give insight to Peters’ world-view.
“The editorial cartoons give one person’s perspective on major events of the last half-century and the consistency of Peters’ perspective is remarkable,” Caswell said. “The ‘Mother Goose and Grimm’ strips are laugh-out-loud funny.”
Both exhibits open Saturday and will be on display until March 12. The Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum is open Tuesday through Sunday from 1 to 5 p.m. Admission is free.