Nataki Oliver had long talked about the possibility of featuring an incarcerated artist at her Sold Firm gallery in downtown Wilmington. But when the opportunity came to actually meet an incarcerated artist for consideration, she hesitated.
“First I wanted to know what his crime was,” said Oliver, who opened The Sold Firm in 2019. “Once I found out who he was, and what he was actually in there for, I thought, ‘OK, yes, I can support an artist who did make a mistake.'”
The artist is Sakana Walls, a 49 year-old military veteran and recovering drug user from Philadelphia serving time in a Delaware prison for a crime committed while he was involved with drugs. He has three years left on his sentence. Since his incarceration in 2006, he has focused on using his creativity as a way to express his feelings — something that had been a challenge throughout his life.
“I used to always express myself in food,” said Walls, who worked as a chef at Iron Hill Brewery before he was incarcerated. “‘How does this taste, how does that taste’ — that’s how I would feel. Because I grew up in a community where it wasn’t permissible to feel, because if you felt, it would make you vulnerable.”
When he started his time in the prison system, he tried to find ways to be heard.
“I used to throw boomerangs out and the boomerang would never come back. I would send notes in bottles and they’d sink halfway across the sea. I would yell and only hear an echo,” said Walls, who spoke to Technical.ly by phone from a Delaware correctional facility. “So my art was more so me understanding and learning a little bit more about myself.”
Although his first experience making art was tagging as a kid, Walls didn’t start painting with a brush until he became a part of a Mural Arts program while in the Pennsylvania prison system.
Now, the opportunity to have a gallery show has made him think more about the impact his art could have on others. One painting, “Weather the Storm,” is a favorite of his because of what it symbolizes to him.
“It’s about educating and becoming aware of my surroundings, thinking before you speak, the rain and the lightning represents adversity, the jacket represents consciousness,” he said. “It wasn’t for sale, and the more I talk about it, the more I’m thinking the piece may mean as much as to somebody as it means to me, so I’m thinking about putting it on the market.”
Oliver’s job is to sell art at a fair price, often working with artists who don’t yet know their value. When she decided to move forward at meet Walls, she treated him like any other artist.
“We started discussing what kind of artist is he, what does he want to do, what his resume looks like, and I actually had him send a proposal into the gallery, just the same as I do with everybody else. He has a great support system out here in Amy Vollmer,” Oliver said, referring to a Swarthmore College professor who has worked with Walls and acted as a go-between connecting them. “It’s definitely been a challenge. However, it has been rewarding to see where it started from, the challenges along the way and how it’s progressing.”
Oliver’s gallery exhibitions are often interactive, and Walls’ solo show, titled STORM, is no different. Oliver described the show as an “experience”: She’s working with a sound engineer and so Walls’ voice can guide visitors through the exhibit during opening weekend. After that, the recording will be available on The Sold Firm’s website so visitors can listen through their phones while they wander.
Walls will also be available, virtually, to answer questions at the opening on Feb. 19. That date is sold out — only a few tickets were available due to COVID-19 distancing restrictions — but those interested can contact Oliver via the gallery’s website with questions. There will also be a selection of pieces from STORM displayed on the site after opening weekend with an option to buy.
“I’ve had a lot people asking, why do I even want to feature an artist who is incarcerated, why would I even want to take that chance,” said Oliver. “And I do want people to understand that we have all done something in our lifetime that we’re not proud of, and there are situations like this where people should actually learn how to overcome the odds.”
Walls said he appreciates Oliver taking that chance on him.
“It’s really allowed me to feel in an environment where, when we spend so much time in it, we take on an animal-like character,” said Walls. “So her and Ms. Amy Vollmer have given me this voice, and it feels really good. I can try my best to not be characterized by the worst thing I’ve ever done, and in doing that, I think I’ve allowed myself and some other people to feel. We have a lot that’s going on in the world today and I want people to take a moment and just feel and try to understand. Our youth need to understand that they have people there who will be able to protect them and support them.”
An automated voice cuts in, announcing the last minute before Walls’ phone time runs out. Quickly, he says thank you and leaves with a final message:
“Coming from this place, we need help,” he said. “Those of us who are here who have been doing the right things, we all need help. If you know of anyone who is coming from a place such as this, extend a hand, because they have something to offer.”
STORM opens Friday, Feb. 19, at 6 p.m., with viewings available by appointment through April 24. Tickets are available at thesoldfirm.com.-30-