Weaving stories

Dairy art show ‘Meetings in Isolation’ explores solitary confinement

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“Tears and Blood”
Photo by Susan France/Art by Anna Olsson

Not many textile artists have to go through security checkpoints every morning.

Anna Olsson did. For five years, the psychologist-by-day and artist-by-night worked in a windowless, high-security, Swedish detention facility. Her patients were suspected criminals awaiting their trials in solitary confinement.

She would serve as the patients’ primary human contact during their time in isolation, which sometimes lasted for more than a year. Their meetings were powerful, especially for a self-described “ordinary person” — more of an artist than a psychologist.

“I live a rather boring life,” Olsson says. “Maybe out on the street I would have been afraid of them. But at work they really showed me all of their pain and all they were afraid of. … They were very lonely, and in a way, very small.”

“Do I truly make a difference, or do I just leave a mountain of tissues behind?” Photo by Susan France/Art by Anna Olsson

Swedish law requires those suspected of crimes carrying a sentence of one year or more to be placed in custody while awaiting their trial. The suspects are isolated and cut off from the outside world to prevent flight and tampering with evidence.

After a string of suicides in 2009, the use of solitary confinement came into question. The government responded by bringing in psychologists to work with its detainees. It was Olsson’s job to clean up the psychological mess the outdated practice had created.

“In Denmark and Norway they used the practice, but they stopped 20 or 30 years ago because of mental illness,” she says. “I’m a psychologist — I know it’s dangerous to a person to be isolated.”

But life in the prison wasn’t just hard on the detainees. The oppressive atmosphere and emotionally demanding nature of her work weighed heavily on Olsson.

“I was very, very tired for those five years,” she says. “When I was at work I couldn’t see if it was daylight outside. It was a cold and inhuman place to work.”

For the previous 15 years, working through her problems on the loom had been Olsson’s own therapy. But despite growing feelings of stress and hopelessness, she was reluctant to turn her experiences into art, citing concerns about professionalism and patient confidentiality.

Much of a psychologist’s work is empathizing, and putting herself in the shoes of isolated prisoners fulltime wasn’t easy. Olsson lived for years with the prisoners’ traumatic memories, feeling personally responsible for their well-being.

For access to the prison, Olsson had to push a button and speak with someone who controlled the locked doors remotely. Though she was always let through, the restrictions on her freedom of movement left her feeling powerless. Years of constant video surveillance made her paranoid. Olsson internalized these feelings, and they followed her into life at home.

“Every step I take, maybe there’s somebody watching me, maybe not,” she says. “Even if you don’t think about it, in another way you think about it all the time.”

“Where have you been living since we last met? Here and there.” Photo by Susan France/Art by Anna Olsson

After two years, Olsson was beginning to feel like a prisoner too. So she turned to her art.

“I came to a point that it was not possible not to make art about it. All my body and every part of me was concerned with these questions,” she says.

“I used to say to my patients, ‘We are different. Some people go on a walk. Some people scream. Some people talk to handle difficult things.’ Words are a way to handle them, but I’m not sure that works for me. I make tapestries,” she continues.

In what would become the series Meetings in Isolation — on display at The Dairy Arts Center through April 30 — Olsson began to weave images of the prison and its solitary inmates. A natural fit for her already minimal style, the tapestries reproduced the cold isolation and repetition of the environment in large swaths of plain, solid color.

“[With] a painting, I think I’d have to do a lot more with the pictures,” Olsson says. “There’s something about the surface. It makes me brave. … So I can leave a big space in only one color. It’s something just that’s woven.”

It’s a somewhat uncommon style for tapestries, which are more often densely patterned. But it lent itself to simple repetition that was therapeutic for Olsson, and it proved to be an emotionally resonant medium in which to convey the prisoners’ stories.

“Behind every door, anxiety is growing. One discussion at a time, day by day, and week by week.” Photo by Susan France/Art by Anna Olsson

One tapestry, entitled “Behind every door anxiety is growing,” reflects the challenge Olsson faced in trying to alleviate the suffering of so many prisoners. It depicts a gray prison hallway lined with cell doors, extending into the distance. Green pools seep from under each door, representing the mounting turmoil of the detainees.

Olsson writes in her artist statement: “Behind every door in the long prison corridor sits a person. A person sitting entirely alone and almost always with a head full of horrible thoughts. … Whatever I do, I can’t meet everyone who needs support or has asked for my help.”

Weaving let Olsson cope with her work. But she saw another opportunity in it: After feeling powerless in the prison for so long, this was her chance to fix things. She now hopes to share her unique emotional understanding of the patients with the public, whom she says too often stereotype suspected criminals and prisoners.

“They always looked rather dangerous. They trained a lot and had a lot of tattoos. But when I came in and asked them questions they started to cry,” Olsson says.

Humanizing these men came naturally to Olsson after spending years helping them through the hardest time of their lives. Their pain comes through clearly in their blank woven faces. The missing details evoke the imagination — the viewer is forced to look past the men’s tough exteriors and to see a mirror of themselves.

Although the scenes are cold and somewhat sterile, there’s a warmth that comes through in the texture. Olsson wants us to look closely for the human side of her images, just as she hopes we would look closely and see the human impact of social issues in working to fix them.

“It’s easy to look at a person when you read in a newspaper that this person has done this crime, and to judge that person very hard,” she says. “But there’s also a story there. It’s important to think about the story.”

On the Bill: Meetings in Isolation. The Dairy Arts Center, 2590 Walnut St., Boulder, 303-440-7826. Through April 30.