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jackie sumell

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jackie sumell (based in New Orleans, LA) is a multidisciplinary artist and abolitionist inspired by the lives of everyday people. Her work is anchored at the intersection of activism, education, and art. Her 12-year correspondence and collaboration with political prisoner Herman Wallace, who was held in solitary confinement for over 40 years, led to The House that Herman Built. The project is the subject of the Emmy Award-winning documentary Herman’s House (2013). sumell’s practice explores the overlay and interplay of creative practices, mindfulness studies, social sculpture, and the principles of The Black Panther Party for Self Defense.

Featured Artwork (Tab to skip section.)


The House that Herman Built

Courtesy of the artist | Installation image by Impart Photography

Cell, letters, architectural model, audio, drawing


Herman’s Library

Courtesy of the artist | Installation image by Impart Photography

Books, framed book lists

Herman Wallace is one of the Angola Three—three Black men who were held for decades in solitary confinement in the Louisiana State Penitentiary (also known as Angola Prison). He was imprisoned for forty-one years as retaliation for his activism and involvement with the Black Panther Party. Over thirty years into his sentence, artist jackie sumell asked Wallace to imagine the house of his dreams as part of a campaign to call attention to the long-term solitary confinement he was enduring. Throughout their twelve-year correspondence, Wallace and sumell developed intricate details for his dream home.

In this installation, sumell presents a replica of Wallace’s solitary cell based on his sketches and measurements along with a selection of their correspondence, an architectural model of the house they collaboratively designed, and the library of books that Wallace requested. In 2013, when Wallace was in the end stages of terminal cancer, a judge overturned his conviction, and he passed away a free man, surrounded by friends and supporters. The model, letters, and library bear witness to the intellectual and political legacy of Wallace and stand in deep contrast to the inhumane constraints of the system that imprisoned him but could not contain his imagination.

Hear Herman describe the house he and jackie designed together.
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Solitary Garden

Featured Exhibit

Solitary Garden at UC Santa Cruz is a participatory public sculpture and garden project by award-winning artist jackie sumell in collaboration with Tim Young, who is currently on Death Row in San Quentin State Prison fighting to prove his innocence in the California appellate court system. The sculpture follows the blueprint of a 6’x9’ U.S. solitary confinement cell and is surrounded by a garden which Tim designed via letters and drawings to students and volunteers, who cultivate it as his proxies.

jackie sumell’s work is also featured in the following Barring Freedom study guides: From the Inside OutAbolition Futures

A woman with curly brown hair and a gray shirt poses with her arms crossed.

jackie sumell’s work has been exhibited extensively throughout the U.S. and Europe, including at the American Visionary Art Museum, Baltimore; Brooklyn Library Main Branch; The Royal College of Art, London; Artist’s Space, New York; Akademie Schloss-Solitude, Stuttgart, Germany; St. Etienne Biennial, France; Alternator Gallery, British Columbia; Prospect 1, New Orleans, and ZKM, Germany. Her residencies and awards include the Blade of Grass-David Rockefeller Fund Joint Fellow in Criminal Justice; the Robert Rauschenberg Artist-As-Activist Fellowship; Eyebeam Project Fellowship, and the Akademie Solitude Fellowship (2018). An ardent public speaker and prison abolitionist, sumell has lectured in colleges and universities around the U.S.

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Suggested Reading

Anzaldúa, Gloria

Borderlands = La Frontera: The New Mestiza

First edition. San Francisco: Spinsters/Aunt Lute, 1987.

Browne, Simone

Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness

Durham: Duke University Press, 2015

Davis, Angela Y.

Are Prisons Obsolete?

New York: Seven Stories, 2003.

Freire, Paulo

Pedagogy of the Oppressed

30th anniversary ed. New York: Continuum, 2000.

Lorde, Audre

Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches

Crossing Press, 2007.

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