A traveling art exhibit, created by a group of women incarcerated at Connecticut’s York Correctional Institution, is now on view at the Charter Oak Cultural Center in Hartford.
The installation is called Women of York— Shared Dining. It features a triangular table with place settings that honor women of significance to the artists. It was constructed in 2013 by 10 female inmates. Seven have since been released, including Lisette Oblitas.
She served more than four years for misconduct with a motor vehicle and driving under the influence of alcohol after a car accident that took the life of 77-year-old Phyllis Porter. Oblitas chose to honor Porter for the project.
“She was a very devoted woman,” Oblitas said. “Devoted to her family, raised her daughters, her son and loved music, and had a flower business, loved nature.”
The installation was created with the limited supplies available at the prison— paper plates, styrofoam cups, soap, paint— and was inspired by Judy Chicago’s iconic feminist work called The Dinner Party.
The Virgin Mary, Princess Diana, and the biblical Eve are among those celebrated by the Women of York.
Oblitas’s colorful place setting depicts flowers in full bloom framed by a border of musical notes. The images represent Mrs. Porter’s flower shop and her love of music— details that Oblitas learned through written correspondence with the family.
“I wanted to create in my own world. I wanted to create a garden where I can meet with her,” Oblitas said. “So I created the flowers, and that’s the place where I can actually be free to just say, ‘I’m sorry’ without feeling judged.”
But it took a few years to get to that point. Early in her incarceration Oblitas said she wanted to express her sorrow to the family, but was advised against it by her attorney until after the case was over. She was incarcerated at York for nearly three years before a plea bargain was reached. It was at her sentencing when she heard one of Porter’s five children say the words that began her transformation.
“The son of Mrs. Phyllis Porter addressed the court and asked the judge if he could say a word, and the judge granted him that right. And he said, ‘We all make mistakes. We forgive you.’ I felt like I was going to faint. I never imagined someone telling me, ‘You’re forgiven.’”
Forgiveness is something that every person who’s committed a crime dreams of, Oblitas said. But it was only through the Shared Dining project that she was able to begin to forgive herself.
“The arts for me was the only tool available where I could let go of all those fears, all the pain, and just be,” Oblitas said.
For Oblitas, the place setting represents her personal acceptance and forgiveness but she also wants the piece to inspire others to forgive themselves.
“If you look at this art piece and you learn, wow, this family was able to forgive somebody that took someone important from their life,” Oblitas said. “How can I not forgive myself for the wrong I have done?”
Lisette Oblitas was released in 2014. Today she’s at Columbia University in New York City. She works at the Society of Fellows and the Heyman Center for the Humanities and takes classes through the Justice-in-Education initiative.
One of her goals is to participate in prison programs that help inmates get through trauma and the experience of being incarcerated. Oblitas continues to create art.
The exhibit, Shared Dining, is on view at the Charter Oak Cultural Center through April 8.