BrainBank: Cell Block Installations

This afternoon, I visited the Eastern State Penitentiary. As I explored the cell blocks I came across art installations in old cells. Different artists incorporated their art into the cells in very unique ways. One cell was covered with knitting. Another was made to become harsher by remaking everything out of steel rectilinear forms. Another artist installed stained glass windows inspired by different things in different cells.

The artist that installed the knit cell called Cozy, Karen Schmidt, hand-knit every square inch of the cell. There are a total of 419,879 stitches within the installation using more than 25,000 yards of yarn. Schmidt was inspired by inmate George Black who stole yarn from the penitentiary’s dye shop. In her artist’s statement, Schmidt explains how she envisioned the knit cell to be a visual representation of how inmates made the space their own.


I thought that this piece was an interesting installation because the tone is the complete opposite of what a cell block would give off. Cells are cold, lonely, and hard when the knit installation is warm, comforting, and soft. I wonder how an inmate would feel in a cell such as this. Would the punishment seem as intense?

The steel cell called The Separate System by Jordan Griska was an exaggeration of the penitentiary’s hard, bleak, and uniform living spaces. His installation was designed to bring attention to the extreme sense of confinement within the cells by completely encompassing the cell in sheet steel.


This cell installation was interesting because it maximized the coldness of the cell. It eliminated any hint of comfort. There are only metal angles throughout the cell. I couldn’t imagine sitting in that cell alone for ten minutes.

These installations showed that simply changing one attribute of the cell could create an entirely new tone and mood of it. The installation also shows that environment plays a very important role in a person’s emotion, especially when that environment is all that person has.


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