[Ppnews] Angola 3 - Herman Wallace dreams up a house

Political Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Sat Dec 13 13:34:59 EST 2008

Artist Jackie Sumell designs a house based on the wishes of Angola  
inmate Herman Wallace

Posted by Doug MacCash, Art critic, The Times-Picayune December 13,  
2008 5:00AM


THE HOME: The House that Herman Built

THE OWNERS: Jackie Sumell and Herman Wallace

THE SPACE: A Prospect.1 New Orleans exhibition featuring renderings of
an imaginary house described by an Angola inmate and designed by a
conceptual artist

ON VIEW: At the Contemporary Arts Center, 900 Camp St., Wednesdays
through Sundays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., through Jan. 18.

WHY THEY LOVE IT: 'It gets people who would never talk about these
issues to talk about them, ' Sumell says.

Kathy Anderson / The Times-PicayuneA model of the House that Herman Built.

Brooklyn-born Jackie Sumell has lived in New Orleans on and off since
Hurricane Katrina. Now, the 35-year-old conceptual artist plans to
build a one-of-a-kind dream house here -- as soon as she raises the
$400,000 she needs to do it. The house will have some ordinary south
Louisiana features: a steeply sloped roof to shed rain, extensive
gardens, a wrap-around porch and a huge kitchen for entertaining.
Kathy Anderson / The Times-PicayuneArtist and sometime carpenter
Jackie Sumell in a wooden cell based on Wallace's solitary confinement

But it will have some rarely heard-of features as well. The picture
windows will be bullet-proof. The raised bedroom will offer views of
the yard in all directions, like a prison guard tower. A secret escape
hatch will allow the resident to flee from the bedroom, down the
chimney like Santa Claus in reverse. It will lead to a tunnel that
ends in a survivalist bunker beneath the pool. The house will be made
almost entirely of wood, in part so it can be burned to the ground if
it comes under attack.

Sumell's dream house seems to blend a craving for spaciousness and
comfort with an unnatural fear of persecution. That's no wonder, since
it isn't based on her own wishes, but the imaginings of Herman
Wallace, 67, a prisoner serving a life sentence at the Louisiana State
Penitentiary in Angola, where he's spent 36 years in "closed-cell
restriction, " also known as solitary confinement.
Kathy Anderson / The Times-PicayuneSumell's wooden replica of Wallace's cell

Wallace dreams of a private bathroom equipped with a hot tub as large
as his 6-by-9-foot cell; a greenhouse and gardens so he's never far
from growing things; and a bank of six microwave ovens to accommodate
streams of party guests.

Wallace described his dream house in a series of letters to Sumell,
who's done her best to weave his wishes into a buildable design. An
exhibit of the letters, blueprints, a model of the home, a
computerized virtual tour and a hand-built, full-sized wooden version
of Wallace's cell comprise one of the most penetrating of the
Prospect.1 New Orleans exhibits on display at the Contemporary Arts

Sumell describes "The House that Herman Built" exhibit as a sort of
"Trojan Horse, " designed to expose a prison system that she considers
akin to slavery.

RADICAL DESIGNS: With bouncy brown hair, Lucille Ball-era eye glasses,
a broad smile and -- on the day we spoke -- green hoop earrings and
polka-dot pink blouse, Sumell doesn't seem the angry activist type.

But when asked if she sees herself as a radical, she said,
"Absolutely, yeah, without a doubt."

Her collaboration with Wallace, originally convicted of armed robbery
in 1972, began with a lecture she attended in San Francisco in 2001.
The speaker was Robert King Wilkerson, a former inmate who'd just been
released after serving 31 years at Angola.

Wilkerson and two other New Orleans men, Albert Woodfox and Wallace,
are widely known as "the Angola 3." Early in their incarceration, they
helped organized a chapter of the Black Panthers at the prison in an
effort, they said, to end violence and improve living conditions.

When a guard was stabbed to death in 1972, Wallace and Woodfox were
convicted of the murder, and all three men were placed in solitary
confinement, where they stayed for more than three decades. Supporters
contend that this constitutes "inhumane and unconstitutional" treatment.

Sumell was swept up in their story. After Wilkerson's lecture, she
asked what she could do to help the two men still behind bars.
Wilkerson, Sumell said, advised her to write to them.

CONCEPTUAL APPROACH: Unsure of how to break the ice, Sumell took the
conceptual art route. She taped a disposable camera to her wrist, set
her alarm watch to ring on the hour, then snapped pictures of her
surroundings as the day evolved. She sent copies of the photos to each
man, with a letter that said, "Here's 24 hours of my simple life. I
can't imagine what yours is like."

A correspondence started between the artist and Wallace.

About a year later, Sumell received a class assignment to ask someone
of importance to describe his or her home. With the professor's
permission, she tweaked the requirements. To help Wallace mentally
reach beyond his prison cell, she asked him what has become the
signature question of her art career: "What kind of house does a man
who has lived in a 6-foot-by-9-foot cell for over 30 years dream of?"

For the next six years, Wallace outlined his ideas in letters, phone
conversations and during Sumell's occasional visits. Sumell says she
has come to consider Wallace her best friend. For his part, in one
letter Wallace writes that Sumell is "a daughter I never had."

"My life is completely committed to freeing Herman Wallace and Albert
Woodfox, " Sumell said, "and to unmasking a history of absolute
oppression and injustice, particularly in Louisiana, but in the United
States in general. It's a huge dragon to slay, but it's my work and
right now I'm doing it by building this man's house."

COLLABORATIONS: The house is, among other things, a symbol of their
bond. Yet, like any pair of collaborators, Sumell and Wallace have
apparently had their differences.

In one letter, Wallace sounds much like the aggrieved client of an
architect when he writes: "You recall you spoke of lots of windows,
right? Then why are your drawings so closed in? A house within a house
within a house is not really a house at all, it becomes a shelter."

At the CAC exhibit, a computer-animated tour of Wallace's dream house
draws upon his written descriptions of it, read aloud by Wilkerson.
Every detail is articulated in a spare architectural style, from the
roses, gloxinias and delphiniums in the garden to the antique
typewriters he plans to repair in his hobby shop, from the photos of
abolitionists such as John Brown and Harriet Tubman displayed on the
living room walls to the soft blue tone of the bedroom lighting.

Wallace's very first design request was a swimming pool with a Black
Panther symbol painted on the bottom.

Sumell has displayed the plans and models for Herman's House, as well
as a life-size wooden model of his Angola cell, 13 times. She hopes it
spreads awareness of Wallace, Woodfox and other Louisiana prisoners'
plights. When she presented the "The House the Herman Built" in
Ireland in 2006, so many people wrote Wallace that he asked Sumell to
get them to stop and find another way to show support.

Woodfox's conviction was overturned by a federal judge in September,
though he has yet to leave Angola. Sumell visited Wallace last week.
She said he is being held in a maximum-security section of the prison
known as The Dungeon.

More information about the PPnews mailing list