Asheville Native Struggled To Find Artistic Voice. He Found It After Serving Time In Prison

May 5, 2021

Sherrill Roland beckons visitors to chisel answers to questions into a wall created to mimic those behind bars. The wall is part of an exhibition at Black Mountain College Museum and Art Center,
Credit Matt Peiken | BPR News

Sherrill Roland’s convictions in a courtroom, on four misdemeanors, were later overturned at a retrial. But they focused Roland’s personal conviction—to use art that both helps him process and heal from his experiences while engaging an unwitting public about certain fears and stereotypes about the convicted.

 

“My body needed to be a part of it, I needed to be involved in the engagement,” Roland said.

 

With what he calls the Jumpsuit Project, Roland chose to wear an orange jumpsuit, like the kind associated with inmates, wherever he appeared and traveled on the campus of UNC-Greensboro. Roland did this throughout the 2016-17 school year as he pursued his master’s degree in art.

 

“It was a very dramatic, traumatic experience for me, and it took a while for me to get comfortable giving up this type of information or experience just as easily or as up front as I tell people I’m from Asheville,” he recalled. “Soon as I was able to expose this big burden, that’s it—the weight’s off there now.”

 

Roland regarded the campus art department building as his prison housing unit, and he asked for escorts whenever he needed to walk elsewhere on campus. He has since worn the jumpsuit inside taped-off sections of 7-by-9 feet—about the size of a typical jail cell—inside museums, galleries and other public spaces.

 

“Yes, the orange jumpsuit was an indicator to provoke an action. Some people deliberately ignored it and other times, people were very curious,” he said. “Once they did know (my story), I got hugs or I got deeper conversations or people telling me about their stories. The whole effect for me was just to challenge it, like ‘What are you thinking when you see this?’” 

 

This is far from the path Roland saw for himself after graduating Asheville High School in 2002. He thought about a future either in architecture, coding or computer animation. Though he pursued a master’s of fine art degree so he could teach, by his own assessment, Roland had little to say with the art made at that time.

 

His first attempt studying at Greensboro ended in an academic suspension. One week before beginning classes a second time, Roland learned about an arrest warrant in his name in Washington, D.C. He won’t talk about the specifics of the charges because, he said, it was a case of mistaken identity that had nothing to do with him. He felt so strongly about preserving his name that, during his probation, he fought for his innocence and was granted a retrial. After his exoneration, Roland returned to graduate school in Greensboro a third time—this time, with a vision.

 

“This happened to me. This has happened to a lot of people close to me. It wasn’t just me,” he said of what he wanted to communicate through the Jumpsuit Project.

 

“The thing I was trying to shift and change had everything to do with my body and personal experience and then also needed people to be engaged with that,” he said. “I needed that type of interaction between my community and myself in this controlled space that I’m able to find myself again while getting comfortable again in the outside world.”

 

Sherrill Roland appeared a jumpsuit outside a library in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 2017.
Credit Sherrill Roland | @SherrillRoland Instagram

Roland, who lives in Durham, has extended his post-incarceration art into a participatory installation now on view at Black Mountain College Museum and Art Center. Roland has posed questions on a large, gray-painted wall and encouraged viewers to chisel their answers into it. Roland sees the experience as mimicking the marks and sentiments inmates inscribe into their walls behind bars.

 

Roland has been invited into group shows later this year in Greensboro and Winston-Salem. He’s also working with high schoolers in Wake County through the North Carolina Museum of Art and Roland said law firms have brought him in to talk about his experiences in relation to work they’re doing.

 

Viewers can chisel into Roland’s wall at Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center through mid-August.

 

“These questions can be really heavy,” he said of his wall installation. “It requires you some time to think about it, but inscribing into a wall with a tool like that, you’re gonna keep that response kinda short. It’s gonna take some mental energy, some physical energy. You gotta give yourself to this piece and then ultimately be ok with it being painted over. You still want to remember your words really matter, even though it’s a fleeting moment.”