Sherrill Roland’s wrongful conviction drives his art
PHOTOS BY TODD TURNER
We never know why artists create art; yet all art is an attempt to make peace with the world: to express, to share, to find some kind of order in our experience. Faced with a traumatizing and humiliating experience, Sherrill Roland turned to art. He had an undergraduate degree that prepared him. Art gave him distance and in that distance, he could find a way to talk with others about what happened to him.
In August of 2012, Sherrill Roland was returning to UNC Greensboro to begin the first week of his Masters Program in Art when he received a phone call from a detective in Washington, DC. The detective advised Sherrill there was a felony warrant out for his arrest in the District of Columbia and that his best option was to turn himself in at a D.C. police station. Sherrill had no idea what he was talking about. He had worked in the area over the summer but knew of nothing that would explain a felony warrant.
Over the next year, while attempting to focus on school, Sherrill hired lawyers and fought the case. He had been accused by someone he didn’t know, of something that couldn’t have happened. In October of 2013, after a two-day bench trial, he was convicted of four misdemeanors and sentenced to 13 months in the D.C. City Jail.
He was immediately taken to jail from the courtroom. He remained incarcerated until August of 2014. In April of 2015, while on probation, his sentence was vacated and in August of the same year his criminal case was sealed on grounds of actual innocence, that is, a judge found Sherrill innocent of all charges. Because he was found innocent and because the sentence was vacated and sealed, Sherrill has no interest in talking about the charges or the details of the case.
Legally, it was as if the case had never happened, yet Sherrill had served ten months in jail. One year after his case was sealed, Sherrill was back in the Masters Program at UNCG; he’d conceived an art project around his ordeal.
“It’s so hard to describe,” he explains. His voice is quiet, his hands folded in his lap. His shoulders are slumped, just slightly. He’s sitting in his studio in the Gatewood Building on the UNCG campus. There’s a desk with a computer and two chairs. Part of one wall is covered in photos of cell phone screens. There’s not much else in the room but Sherrill.
And he’s wearing an orange prison jumpsuit.
“One minute you’re free and the next they’re taking your clothes and you’re standing naked in front of three correctional officers, other prisoners in cells around you. It was unbelievable to me…and such a heartbreaking thing…to see the world in the light I had seen it, where I could tell the truth and be punished for it. I went from crying to not crying ’cause I knew where I was going I definitely didn’t want to be seen crying.”
It’s impossible to say what turns someone from pain to expression, from rage to creation. In the year after his release and eventual exoneration, Sherrill found it hard to talk about his incarceration at all. After a time, his undergraduate training in Art gave him enough tools and parts of a vocabulary to begin the process.
“When you’re released, you’re immediately faced with what you’re going to say to people. Not everyone knows what happened, not everyone knows you’ve been in jail. Do you tell people, do you hedge? How honest can I be, how much do I hide? You have to face the questions every day.”
He didn’t have to say anything. He could have remained quiet, out of shame or fear. He had the right to remain silent.
In 2007, Iraqi-American artist Wafaa Bilal shut himself up in a Chicago gallery for thirty days in a room under constant internet surveillance. In the room he placed a high powered paintball gun which anonymous internet users could use to shoot him. He called the project Domestic Tension. Bilal said, “the project was a way to provoke dialogue about the Iraq War, the technological and remote nature of modern warfare, and what it means for Iraqis to live constantly under the threat of fire.” In the course of thirty days, over 65,000 rounds were fired at Bilal by people he never saw.
Performance Art is meant to muddy the boundaries between art and real life, between the artist and the audience. It’s conceived to provoke spontaneous response so it carries, by definition, a certain amount of risk for both artist and audience. Socially Engaging Performance Art takes on cultural and social issues in ways that, at first, might not appear to be art. None of this has to happen in a gallery; it doesn’t have to look like what we think of as art at all. The nature of performance art is that it’s method and approach can change over time, adapting to new circumstances.
For Sherrill Roland, his Jumpsuit Project fits snugly within the work of other socially engaged performance artists like Wafaa Bilal and Dread Scott. The Jumpsuit Project, as Sherrill conceives it, is a way of engaging the community around him in both his story, in the illusions of control we maintain in order to live our lives, and to bring attention to the problems of mass incarceration in the United States.
For The Jumpsuit Project, Sherrill has decided to wear an orange jumpsuit while he’s on the UNCG campus every day of the academic year.
“In terms of my project, my studio is my cell. The Gatewood Art Building is my cell block. In the jail, whenever you moved off your block—to go to church, to see your lawyer—you couldn’t stop along the way. You had to go directly there. So, whenever I leave Gatewood, my block, I can’t hesitate until I reach another building. If someone wants to talk to me, ask me a question, they have to walk with me. I can’t stop.
“I want to initiate a conversation. I want to say, Look, I was a student here and I thought the world was one way. I thought I was in control then this thing happened to me. We live in a certain world, but there are other things going on. There are things we never see. Things I never saw.
“I want to say, you think it can’t happen to you? I was you and you could be me. These things happen every day. The reality of the world once you leave this place [UNCG] is not what you think it is.”
Sherrill wants to be asked about the project, about his experience in jail. He could have remained silent but he chose to talk about his story in the most public way possible. At intervals he sets up a booth in the congested hallways of the Elliot University Center. It’s devised to mimic the experience family members have when visiting prisoners. You can talk to him there, ask questions. He’s there for 45 minutes and then he’s gone.
“There’s been a lot of interest, a lot of questions, but a lot of fear too … I was scared to wear this suit, but I’m more afraid of the perception of being viewed as someone scary, as someone I’m not. I’ve had people avoid me, run from me. Not talk to me, not make eye contact.
“Your reaction allows you to participate. You are part of that moment. What will it take for you to step out of your world for a minute and ask, witness, do something that helps?”
From March 14 to May 31, 2010, as part of a retrospective of her work at the Museum of Modern Art, Marina Abramovic performed The Artist is Present, in which she sat immobile in a chair for the entirety of each day. Spectators were invited to take turns sitting opposite her while she made eye contact with them.
“To do absolutely nothing and have my life thrown away for it. I’d rack my brain over and over about what was said at the trial and what I could have said. What I could have done to deserve this? I turned to the Bible and I was praying for forgiveness for everything, I mean, for taking my little cousin’s bubblegum when I was eight.
“There had to be a reason, otherwise, why was I here? I really started to question why I was living. That’s the most alone you can be.”
Sherrill’s first cell was locked 23 hours a day. Sometimes he and his cellmate went days without leaving the cell, food trays passed through a slot on the floor. The prisoners in charge of passing out meals picked through the trays before they delivered them, so Sherrill was always hungry.
“For the first while I tried to just hang back, figure out how things were run. When I figured out the commissary, I’d buy these ramen noodles. That’s what I could buy, and every other night I’d make one package. You make it in the bag, you cut a slit and put in some tap water and let it sit for five minutes or so, hoping they get soft. There’s two layers in a package, so I’d share with my cell mate, one layer apiece. That kept us going.”
There was nothing to do all day but torment himself with what he might have said or what he might have done wrong during, or before, his trial. But, in the end, “The truth is very simple. I was pleading and there was nothing else I could say. There’s only one way to tell the truth.”
Soon, he discovered books.
“I was crushing books when I was in there. I begged for books, watched out my slot for books coming by. I read all the books I was supposed to read in high school but didn’t. Anything I could find. Old New Yorkers. But I was reading so fast that I burned through books.”
A few months after he went to jail, a friend’s mother bought him a subscription to Art Forum and had it delivered to the jail. Sherrill’s eyes light up when he talks about it.
“You don’t know what that meant,” he says. “You just don’t know.”
The book that stood out for him was a book he wasn’t supposed to have. Copies were passed covertly between prisoners but, if it was discovered, it would be confiscated. This book was Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.
In The New Jim Crow, Alexander asserts that the criminal justice system and the prison system, as it has been applied primarily to young, black males, is a de facto instrument of oppression. A single conviction for a non-violent crime has, for decade upon decade, rendered young black men essentially unemployable, thus unproductive unless they turn to other means. It has disrupted African American families on a massive scale. And, it has stripped the right to vote from large numbers of young black men. The criminal justice system, to Alexander’s thinking, has replaced the Jim Crow laws of the South as a form of social control.
It isn’t difficult to see the effect this book might have upon a young black man convicted of a crime he did not commit. The thesis of Alexander’s book, its argument and statistics, are the social foundation of The Jumpsuit Project.
Eventually, Sherrill knew he was being released three months early for good behavior. He’d still have to be on probation in the DC area, where he knew few people.
He asked one thing from his family. He wanted to take a plane back home to Asheville.
“I gotta see clouds,” he told them. “I gotta stretch my eyes.”
Dread Scott was one of a group of artists who staged Our Grief Is Not A Cry For War at various locations in New York City in the days immediately following September 11. More than 100 artists stood silent and motionless in Union Square and Times Square.
When the entire ordeal was over, Sherrill’s record was clear but there was a three year gap in his resume. He knew he had to do something. Going back to school was not at the top of his list.
“I knew I had to work. I had to find something, but I was changed. It wasn’t just the time I’d lost.
“I’d lost two grandmothers. I’d missed my daughter being born. And those are just the things I missed. There were other things that happened to me, that I saw while I was inside. How could I go on a job interview and speak on the person I was three years ago? That person didn’t exist.”
By chance, he met one of his past art professors at an airport and they had coffee together. He began to talk about the project—an idea still vague for him—and she encouraged him. They discussed parameters, safety, the necessity for support in what would be an emotionally trying year.
For Sherrill, art now is not about making something that’s pretty, art is about survival. Art is about finding a way to reconcile his experience with the world around him and include people in that reconciliation. But, none of us can reconcile the past by avoiding it.
Sherrill chose the most public path away from avoidance, by putting himself in a position where he must talk about all of it. It’s a path where his past is always in full view.
UNCG was a good location for the project because it was a safe, contained institutional environment with a lot of diversity in students and faculty. From the beginning, he had the full support of faculty. He talked with the campus police so they were aware of the project and his presence.
“It allows for a wide range of reactions in a controlled environment,” Sherrill says. “I want to create just enough interruption in someone’s life…to be a visual reminder, a campus meme.”
He laughs quietly, with the shadow of a grin: “You can certainly see me coming.”
For Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight) in 2014 Emma Sulkowicz, a senior art student at Columbia University, carried a fifty pound mattress wherever she went on campus. She said the piece would end when the student she accused of raping her was either expelled or left the University. She carried the mattress through the school year and in her graduation ceremony.
“Normally, I’m a quiet person. I’m private. But when I have this suit on, I have to be receptive to others. It takes an emotional toll. I write about it in my journal every day.
“Friends and family members, my professors, they’re constantly checking in. They worry about my safety. They don’t want what happened before to happen again. That just because of the suit, I could be accused of something else. They’re always asking how I’m feeling, if I’m okay.”
Sherrill shifts nervously in his chair but his hands remain clasped in his lap. He shrugs.
“I’m numb. A lot of things are tough for me to feel. I don’t get excited about much of anything. No, I don’t. My view of the world is totally different now. I may be numb to a lot of things, excitement, whatever. I lost too much. And there’s too much imagined loss. I stay back.
“I mean. I don’t know you. I didn’t know the person who accused me. I want to be the person that I was, but I know too much now. It’s like when someone runs from me in the suit: I’m telling you who the truth of who I am, but you just don’t see it. It’s a hard thing for me to feel like some kind of threat.”
Sherrill met his daughter for the first time when he got off the plane. She was nine months old. He was met with a smile.
“You figure out what moments are worth.”
He leans forward in his chair, hands clasped, elbows on his knees.
“Before, when I came to school, I knew I wanted to do art but I was all over the place. I had no interest in anything like this. Serving time changed me, but seeing my daughter that day, having a relationship with her now, that’s changed me too.
“This time, I know what I want to do and I know why. That first time was all about me, this time it’s all about other people.”
As the project continues, Sherrill speaks to classes and civic groups. He’s part of an upcoming discussion at The International Civil Rights Museum in November on incarceration. He’s going over all the letters he wrote while inside; the letters written to him. His work will be part of a thesis show at Weatherspoon Art Museum in the spring.
He’s processing the experience in a new way; from a distance, without the veil of fear.
Through his Jumpsuit Project Facebook page, others who are incarcerated get in touch with him. Slowly, he begins to feel he’s doing something that matters.
“We had this thing, like a ritual, my cellmate and I. At the end of every day, we’d look at each other and say, ‘Congratulations.’ Because we’d made it, you know, we’d made it through one more day.”
Sherrill looks away for a moment.
“I mean, I’d like to reach a place where I don’t talk about this every day—when I’m not continually bringing up the worst time in my life—but I think it’s the price I have to pay right now to help other people.”
The light is fading in the windows of his studio as we finish our conversation. His day on campus is coming to a close. He glances out the window and smiles.
“In the meantime, I can’t wait to leave campus every day, so I can take this off.”
Find out more about the Jumpsuit Project and follow it as it develops here:
– Steve Mitchell’s short story collection, The Naming of Ghosts, is published by Press 53. He has a deep belief in the primacy of doubt and an abiding conviction that great wisdom informs very bad movies. He’s co-owner of Scuppernong Books in Greensboro, N.C. You can find him at: www.thisisstevemitchell.com