Visual artist Sherrill Roland spent 10 months in prison for a crime he did not commit. What kept him going was a quest to fulfill his dream of going to art school.
Roland grew up in Asheville before it branded itself as an arts and crafts mecca, but those activities fueled his childhood. He drew figures of Spiderman copied from comic books and portraits of rappers from hand-me-down issues of The Source magazine. Roland was raised by a family of matriarchs who encouraged him to pursue his passions. After graduating from high school, he left Asheville to pursue art as an undergraduate at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He had a bumpy road to graduation — after being suspended from UNC-G during his first year, he took classes at Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College and worked retail and factory positions to pay his bills. He eventually returned to UNC-G to finish his BA, and several years later, he returned again to get his MFA.
It was only days before the semester started that he got a call from a detective in Washington, D.C. who told him there was a warrant out for his arrest. Roland was launched into the criminal justice system and spent years fighting to prove what he knew to be true — that he was innocent.
Roland was exonerated in 2015, and the next year he began The Jumpsuit Project. Every day, he donned an orange prison jumpsuit to process what had happened to him and to raise awareness about the criminal justice system. Host Frank Stasio talks with Roland about his roots in Asheville, the Jumpsuit Project and his recent award: the 2020 Southern Prize from South Arts.
On connecting with his daughter after being incarcerated:
I had built up a lot of walls for my personal safety. I had become very distant emotionally … With my daughter being so young — and she's the sweetest thing I've ever met in my life — it was a real jolt of seeing that in my face. She presented that hardness. She made me recognize that hardness every time that I interacted with her. … There was something I wanted to give, but I was wondering why I couldn't really connect that way.
On trying to explain the gap in his employment history: I started to try to get back out in the job force and everything like that and really struggled with just the basics, like the interview process. How do I describe this huge gap in my employment history? Do I, at least on my CV or my resume, say that I started grad school, because they're going to ask me why I didn't finish. And how do I explain that? And so I felt like the whole time I have been telling the truth. And now I'm put out in this position where I have to lie in order to advance, and that really didn't sit well with me.
On finding parallels between higher education and his prison experience: I'm looking at campus with new eyes … those concrete walls, those white, concrete walls and solid concrete floors, they definitely didn't feel the same. They felt like where I just came from. They looked very institutional, just like jail to me. That juxtaposition of space really made me consider: Who am I here?
On working with teenagers transitioning back home from detention centers: I tried to show more than what they were being shown in their life thus far. Like there's other spaces you can be weird and geek out on some of these art interests. Like: you like playing games, have you ever considered building them? I think that at any point in anybody's life, some things you may want or see yourself being can often sometimes seem so far away. So I took it upon myself to ... bridge that gap, bring them closer to things that they will want to do.