Artist and activist, Sherrill Roland, takes a walk on Guilford’s campus
by Erin Kye
As a graduate student at University of North Carolina Greensboro (UNCG) in 2013, Roland was wrongfully accused by the Washington, DC judicial system of a crime he did not commit. He served nearly a year in prison before he was released and eventually exonerated. After this experience, he created the Jumpsuit Project to share his story and to educate people on the truth of incarceration in the US. This February, he brought his piece to Guilford and met with students and faculty to discuss it.
On the afternoon of Friday, February 10th, Roland walked with students and faculty through the Guilford College campus and woods. The group discussed not just his art but also life in college, events at Guilford, and the history of the Underground Railroad tree. The woods created a powerful setting for Roland’s stories. Even with a group, standing in the woods can feel isolating, surrounded by the towering trees and shadows. This sense of isolation is what Roland conveyed in his story as well, talking about how he felt abandoned by his lawyers and ignored by the system.
// photo credit Laath Martin
According to first-year Clare Chalkley, one story that hit home was about Roland’s first breath of fresh air after his first six months of incarceration.
“He said that going outside for the first time in six months, after cinderblock and fluorescent lights, he saw a fruit fly and it just completely blew his mind,” Chalkley said. “And seeing colors with natural light instead of fluorescent light, because your eyes adjust, he said that was just crazy.”
First-year Gloria Singleton-Kahn, who met with Roland after the walk, said that she enjoyed chatting with Roland not just about his performance piece, but also about Guilford’s Free Press program and their shared interest in interdisciplinary art. Roland’s visit was a remarkable moment for Guilford. The opportunity to speak with him and hear firsthand the struggles he conveys in his artwork was special for students and faculty. Singleton-Kahn said she expressed this appreciation to Roland.
“I think that the work of building community is very admirable and impressive to me,” she told Roland. “I feel like in theory a lot of people agree that activism needs to be focused around building community. But in practice that is a lot harder.”
Roland was able to turn an ugly experience into something beautiful and powerful. His visit to Guilford gave new perspective to our community. Read my interviews with Chalkley and Singleton-Kahn below.
// photo credit Laath Martin
Erin Kye: Can you describe an overview of the walk?
Clare Chalkley: We walked to the Underground Railroad tree, and that’s when we started talking about his experience. We talked about what it was like for him to go through the judicial system as a student and doing that at the same time he was trying to get through graduate school. His lawyer was kind of a small time, it was just him, he wasn’t part of a law firm. He had no name recognition and he wasn’t really in the loop with all the big firms. Once you’re accused, the inevitability of being put away is real. There was no jury. It was just a judge who had like 20 cases that hour, or something like that.
On the walk back from the tree we were talking about what its like once you’re out of prison and how that impacts people—that’s when we started talking more broadly about the prison system, and not just when you’re falsely accused—how being in prison impacts people’s lives and their relationships.
EK: Why did you want to go on the walk with Sherrill Roland?
CC: I’m really interested in prison systems and the prison industrial complex, and thinking about someone who is not just in the prison system, but who is in there without being guilty. I never really thought about that before so I wanted to hear that story. I wanted to hear his side of that. Because, I have thought a lot about prisons and people who are actually in there, in relationship to the war on drugs. But, I never really thought about that side of it.
EK: What was something that you found really interesting about his experience?
CC: The one thing that really caught my attention was that he talked about the first six months of incarceration, and not being allowed outside. And so he said that going outside for the first time in six months, after cinderblock and fluorescent lights, he saw a fruit fly and it just completely blew his mind. And seeing colors with natural light instead of fluorescent light, because your eyes adjust, he said that was just crazy. That was something I never thought of before and it seems insane.
EK: Any other opinions you want to add?
CC: I really enjoyed it. I liked hearing about his experience. When walking around with him, I knew what was going on and watching people’s expressions when seeing a someone in an orange jumpsuit—the mark of being a prisoner—was interesting. I think there were some early college kids playing sports near the gym, and they were just looking at us so apprehensively. He does carry that around with him wherever he goes, wearing the jumpsuit. He does have that title of ex-convict now. And thats interesting because he didn’t do it, what they accused him of. Even people who did, they served their time and once they get out they still have to carry that title. It’s harder to get jobs, harder to get housing.
Erin Kye: How are you familiar with Sherrill Roland?
Gloria Singleton-Kahn: I saw him at the States of Incarceration Workshop at the Greensboro Civil Rights Museum where there was a panel of people with personal experiences with the prison system. So he shared his story and mentioned his performance art piece, so I was very excited that he was going to come to our event, Free Press. It was really cool that I got to meet him because I got to see him talk on a panel that didn’t feel as approachable as him coming to the event.
EK: What did you talk about with him?
GSK: I think that work of building community is very admirable and impressive to me. I feel like in theory a lot of people agree that activism needs to be focused around building community. But in practice that is a lot harder. I told him that it was really impressive with the performance piece he did, that just seems like something that is really hard to do, because I am a visual arts person. He agreed and said he was really motivated because of his experience with the prison system and it feels relevant and personal enough still to push him to do that, even though it is not comfortable.
Interviews were edited minimally for brevity and clarity.
Learn more about the Jumpsuit Project.