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Injustice drives Sherrill Roland's art for social awareness sake
Wrongful incarceration became the Jumpsuit Project
Published Friday, October 25, 2019 12:08 pm
by Ashley Mahoney | The Charlotte Post

Sherrill Roland, who was incarcerated in Washington, D.C., for a crime he didn’t commit, turned his ordeal into the Jumpsuit Project.

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Sherrill Roland turned injustice into art, and art into awareness about mass incarceration.

Imprisoned in Washington, D.C. for a crime he did not commit, Roland has since received a bill of innocence and that yearlong experience inspired the creation of The Jump Suit Project.  Conducted at UNC Greensboro, where he earned a master’s degree in fine arts in 2017, Roland wore an orange jumpsuit while he completed his course work. His art continues to explore a subject that changed his life, currently through his residency at the McColl Center for Art + Innovation, which runs through Dec. 3.

“Like many artists, I did not consider myself to be an artist, or art as a career choice when I was young,” Roland said. “It was more like a hobby that I just turned out to be really good at—drawing and sketching. I just kept going. I got good, positive reinforcement.”

After college, Roland worked numerous jobs, but found himself pulled back to art.

“I missed the arts,” Roland said. “I missed the community of artists. I chose to go to grad school to make it my fulltime career. Then I wanted to teach. Receiving a master’s in fine arts would give me that opportunity to pursue that route.”

Roland strove to serve as a bridge between an older generation and the next during his initial experience in grad school. However, he kept coming back to the question of where his voice fit into the work he created. An opportunity to answer that question on campus came to halt.

“I was wrongfully incarcerated in Washington, D.C.,” Roland said. “That flipped my world completely.”

For the Asheville native, being charged with a crime in a place he had never lived came as a shock. He went to trial and was convicted. While he fought for his innocence, art was the furthest thing from his mind. Following his exoneration, art provided a coping mechanism in the wake of incarceration.

“The art provided me a way to address this experience, to make me be OK, find my way and purpose again,” Roland said. “Now I have a voice. Now I have a narrative with my work—the question I kind of left grad school with.”

Roland did not receive support from the government. Unsure of who he could talk to, he needed a way to get the trauma out of his system. Enter The Jumpsuit Project.

“Ultimately, I wore an orange jumpsuit for one year—an academic school year—for the entire time at UNC Greensboro until I graduated,” Roland said. “I even wore it under my graduation robe. It was the key thing for me to have a reaction, to give the public a moment that will give an honest reaction to this image [of a black man in an orange jumpsuit].”

Roland’s studio practice also created a therapeutic space through sculpture, two-dimensional works and performance.

“I’m still trying to get these experiences out, still trying to communicate it,” he said. “A lot of it has to do with bringing more people into the conversation, as opposed to it all coming from me. Through the conversation around this work, I’ve found out that my story isn’t rare, and there’s a lot of people who have been touched, maybe not directly, but also secondary, to incarceration and things of that nature.”


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