Adjacent to the Historical Garden on the grounds of the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme is a small, raised-bed garden, with a trellis on one side that is gently being overtaken by vines.
This unassuming little garden is called the “Solitary Garden,” a powerful message about incarceration and solitary confinement.
In 2021, about a year into the pandemic, the Florence Griswold Museum was looking for a contemporary artist to round out an exhibition planned on the timely subject of isolation and art.
“It seemed like there was no more illustrative kind of story about the toll of isolation than solitary confinement,” said Amy Kurtz Lansing, the Florence Griswold Museum’s curator. “So we reached out to an artist who makes her work, creating the solitary gardens, about that subject. And that’s how we found jackie sumell.”
“Solitary confinement is at the discretion of each penal institution, and no judge or jury will decide that,” said jackie sumell (she does not capitalize her name), a New Orleans based artist and activist. “I don’t think anyone deserves to be kept in a cage.”
Solitary confinement directs much of sumell’s art, stemming from her relationship with the Angola Three. The three, black, former prisoners spent decades in solitary confinement, despite repeated pleas to have them returned to the general prison population by human rights groups like Amnesty International.
sumell said the solitary garden grew from her years of correspondence with Herman Wallace, one of the Angola Three.
“I saw how much he talked about plants and flowers and gardens from inside, which at that point was 41 years of solitary confinement,” said sumell. “And so I knew that there was some way that I would use gardens to uphold the life and legacy of such a remarkable man, but also illustrate our inhumanity, and the ways that we weaponize space and time through solitary confinement.”
The Solitary Garden at Florence Griswold is the size of a typical solitary confinement cell, about 6 feet by 9 feet. Before the garden got lush, you could still see concrete imprints of where the bed and toilet would be. The imprints were made from what sumell calls “revolutionary mortar” — a concoction of materials like tobacco, cotton and cane sugar, crops that were once harvested by slave labor. It’s mixed with eco-friendly lime and water to make a simple, concrete-like material.
The art installation has another symbolic element — the garden itself is designed by someone who is currently incarcerated, in this case, at nearby York Correctional Institution. Through written correspondence with a volunteer on the outside, the incarcerated gardener gives specifications about which plants to include in the Solitary Garden, and where to put them.
The Rev. Laura Fitzpatrick-Nager is the Senior Associate Minister at the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme. She has been corresponding with the incarcerated gardener for 2 years now.
Fitzpatrick-Nager said as part of the project, the gardener’s name is kept anonymous.
“I can tell you that she is a gardener herself, and has a garden there [at York Correctional],” said Fitzpatrick-Nager. “The additional connection of her actual gardening, at the same time that we have this garden growing, her garden growing with her input, it just added so much more meaning.”
Amy Kurt Lansing said the incarcerated gardener had strong opinions about what plants should occupy the Solitary Garden.
“She gave a lot of thought to making sure that there would be something for every season,” said Kurtz Lansing. “And so she picked some plants that have a significance or were personal or family favorites. And then others that seem just extra symbolic, like, forget-me-nots, for example, she wanted some Moonflowers to sort of be the climbers.”
In the two years since the garden was planted, those moonflowers have attached to the trellis in the solitary garden meant to resemble prison bars. Laura Fitzpatrick-Nager said it’s a poetic symbol of what the Solitary Gardens project is all about.
“The vines growing wildly so that the bars kind of disappear. And I think that the garden has made this connection and is taking over wildly any barriers to our freedom or humanity.”
The Solitary Garden will remain at the Florence Griswold Museum for the foreseeable future. There are other Solitary Garden installations across the country, including one at the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center in Hartford.