Home » The Power of Art: Herman Wallace’s Dream House

The Power of Art: Herman Wallace’s Dream House

I wanted to write this short post because something happened recently that reminded me about the power and importance of art.

From the film, Herman’s House.

A friend of mine was commenting the other night that very little art that she sees on a daily basis resonates emotionally with her. It’s true – there is a tendency for much of today’s art to be a little ‘cool’ and conceptual. Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing, I just think that it’s less fashionable these days for art to be messy.

But then I heard that Herman Wallace, a 71-year old inmate at Louisiana State Penitentiary, had been released. Mr. Wallace was in jail for armed robbery, and was a member of the ‘Angola Three‘ and a former Black Panther. He had been held in solitary confinement, in a 6 by 9 foot cell for over 40 years after allegedly murdering a prison guard in 1972.

By many accounts the case against Mr. Wallace was weak – even the victim’s widow had her doubts.

Mr. Wallace, who was suffering from cancer, died three days after having been released from prison, which is heartbreaking.

Herman Wallace. Image: New York Times.

Artist Jackie Sumell. Image: New York Times.

But I think he had achieved a certain amount of freedom while in prison – with the help of the artist Jackie Sumell. I went to see a talk by Ms. Sumell at Prefix in Toronto in 2010, which I blogged about HERE. Her amazing, inspiring project, called ‘The House that Herman Built’ involved creating plans to construct Herman Wallace’s dream house.

Through his imagination, Ms Sumell encouraged him to imagine his dream home, and she set about making maquettes, plans and in the accompanying documentary even bought land in New Orleans where she planned to build a community centre in his honour. She developed a deep friendship with Herman – almost like that of a father and daughter.

The model of Herman’s House. Image: transplantneworleans.com

A scale model of Herman’s cell, part of Jackie Sumell’s art project. Image: transplantneworleans.com

To me, Jackie Sumell exemplifies all that is great about emotionally resonant art. She put the art before her own needs. She literally saved Herman Wallace. She gave him freedom, through his imagination, through art. And I think that is a very beautiful thing.

The documentary is a fascinating look at the pros and cons of believing so strongly in a work of art. A project like this one is certainly not for the faint-hearted, but then great art is not easy.

I was lucky to see the film at HotDocs Festival in Toronto, and I highly recommend it. You can buy the DVD, but maybe we could host another screening? It’s an important film.

Read more about Jackie Sumell’s project HERE.

Read about Herman Wallace HERE.

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