How can creatives use their talents as communicators and artists as a form of activism?
As a transplant who moved to Fort Wayne in 2015, Brett Bloom has been immersed in socially engaged art and activism for more than 20 years prior to launching his community-scale composting service Dirt Wain
in 2019. Bloom
At Dirt Wain, Bloom serves as “an artist in residence,” and applies the talents he accrued as an artist, publisher, educator, and activist to the environmental ecosystem and other socially engaged causes.
However, outside of Dirt Wain and his full-time job as an educator at an area school, publishing remains something close to Bloom’s heart. This lifelong passion stretches back to his previous residence in Chicago, producing exhibitions, events, projects, and publications with the creative collaboration group Temporary Services
Recently, Bloom and a partner at Temporary Services, Marc Fischer, re-released one of their most successful socially engaged art projects after a 15-year hiatus called “Prisoners’ Inventions."
The project, chronicled in a book, is a collaboration between Bloom, Fischer, and an incarcerated artist referred to as “Angelo.”
Fischer originally became pen pals with Angelo in 1991 while Angelo was incarcerated in California. Eventually, this relationship led to Angelo sending various ballpoint drawings that depicted themes of power and subordination.
Bloom created his community-scale composting service Dirt Wain in 2019.
Temporary Services continued to work with the now-deceased Angelo on an exhibition of his work in Chicago and eventually learned about the various inventions prisoners would create, which Angelo mentioned casually in his writing.
“Prison in America—especially a supermax prison—is an experience of everyday torture, humiliation, and deprivation,” Bloom says.
The inventions highlighted in the book frequently depict the things people would pine for in their lives outside of prison walls. The project evolved into a publication and subsequent traveling exhibition, which engaged and informed about the phenomenon of human inventiveness behind bars.
“Prison provides a challenge to meet people's basic human needs and desires,” Bloom says. “Creativity, as seen in this book, are attempts of people trying to deal with that—the harshness, the loneliness, the isolation that one feels in a supermax prison, so people will make all sorts of things.”
Bloom and a partner at Temporary Services, Marc Fischer, re-released one of their most successful socially engaged art projects after a 15-year hiatus called “Prisoners’ Inventions."
The book contains drawings and write-ups about various inventions prisoners managed to envision and even produce in their cells, from modesty curtains to dice tables.
“The drawings and descriptions make it seem like it’s pretty quick and easy, but oftentimes to make some of the things, they would have to scavenge for months and kind of steal and borrow and recycle,” Bloom says.
Like many socially engaged art projects, communicating the humanity of the subjects to the audience is paramount.
“We tend to often think about people who are in prison in terms of their offence,” Bloom says. “We think that’s what they are, rather than seeing their humanity.”
Bloom volunteers with the Fair Fridge in Fort Wayne near Bravas.
This desire to share others’ humanity formed the foundation of the marriage between art and activism in “Prisoners’ Inventions." It's a cause that's rising to prominence in the U.S. as the COVID-19 pandemic calls Americans to reconsider the value of our shared humanity—and as racial unrest draws attention to abuses in the U.S. criminal justice system, which have disproportionately put People of Color and low-income residents behind bars.
With renewed interest in the burgeoning conversation on the prison system, Bloom believes now is time to reignite interest in long overdue challenges, like criminal justice reform.
“We have to help with this,” Bloom says. “We have to use our skills as artists and communicators to get this out in the world, and share it.”
When asked if he had any advice for emerging community leaders who want to use their skills in a similar way, Bloom seems optimistic about places people can get plugged into in Fort Wayne by volunteering with organizations they are passionate about.
Bloom's various projects include a new compost and prairie demonstration site that will eventually feature native plants, raised garden beds, and composting workshops.
In terms of publishing, Bloom recommends going the self-publishing route to anyone who is interested in socially engaged art, along with participating in publishing fairs for books and zines.
Recently, Bloom’s publishing background has come full circle to Dirt Wain with the addition of an online-curated bookstore within the Dirt Wain website. Profits from the sales of Climate Compost will be donated to organizations fighting climate breakdown and environmental racism (including the Fair Fridge project).
“Dirt Wain Books was started to support our educational efforts around composting and sustainability,” Bloom says. “A cultural shift around ecological issues, including climate chaos, composting, sustainable living, etc., will require a lot of education, and the books selected are a part of that.”
Bloom would eventually like to open a curated bookstore in Fort Wayne at some point in the future, and considers Dirt Wain Books an early experiment in that effort.
Outside of these endeavors, Bloom has been keeping busy with community projects at various stages of development with Dirt Wain and other organizations, including a new compost and prairie demonstration site that will eventually feature native plants, raised garden beds, and composting workshops.
Also on the Dirt Wain website, some of the sales proceeds of climate compost have been used to help buy food for the Fair Fridge, which is powered by the future Bravas location on Fort Wayne's South side. Within this effort, Bloom hopes to eventually offer a workshop for people who want to operate their own independent fridges in the city.
It's all a part of utilizing his skills and interests to create a better future in Northeast Indiana—and beyond.
For more information on "Prisoners’ Inventions," go to Temporary Services's website
and publishing arm, halfletterpress.com