Heroin was her first love. Now, this Lakota grad uses her pain to help other incarcerated artists

She became an artist in prison, and it helped her connect with her young daughter.

Credit: Nick Graham

Credit: Nick Graham

She had planned the meal for months.

In prison, time was torture. And this was a way to survive. For years, Aimee Wissman lived on a diet of popcorn and peanut butter. Rice and beans were as good as it got.

Everything else, she recalled, was not fit for human consumption.

So before she was released, Wissman planned. She dreamed. She fantasized. Her first meal would be steak. A big, juicy steak.

Then, like much of life outside prison walls, it wasn’t that simple.

When her mom picked her up, Wissman was too nervous to eat. She was overwhelmed and overstimulated. Instead of steak, Wissman could only think about showering.

At her mom’s house, she ate leftover lasagna.

The struggle

Wissman was introduced to heroin when she was a student at Lakota West High School. She once called it her first love.

She was 16.

Drugs aren’t exactly the reason she ended up in the Dayton Correctional Institution. But they aren’t unrelated, either. The day she was arrested started with a fist fight about fajitas. In the motel where she said she lived with an abusive partner, Wissman couldn’t return that evening without money or drugs.

Before an unsuccessful robbery that ended in the backseat of a police cruiser, Wissman looked at a friend and told her they were going to jail today. Her life was so terrible at the time, it didn’t stop her. In many ways, she had given up.

Wissman had struggled with addiction for almost a decade. Then, she got pregnant.

Her daughter was 1 when a judge sentenced Wissman to eight years in prison. At a court hearing, Wissman once wrote, she looked at her parents and cradled her arms after the sentence was read.

“My baby,” she mouthed repeatedly.

A year later, Wissman’s parents wrote a letter to the judge. They said their daughter was broken. In court, they said, she looked like the walking dead.

In prison, art brought her back to the living. And it started because of her daughter.

Art is inside her

Wissman didn’t consider herself an artist before prison.

Growing up, art was not treated as a possible profession in her household. But in some of the toughest years of her life, it became how she stayed connected to her daughter.

“Little kids love mail,” she told the Journal-News.

So Wissman made cards. She made cutouts of paper into cartoon characters. She learned to draw by tracing. She scratched images into Styrofoam trays. She would paint the tray, stick paper to it and peel it off.

Anything to give her daughter something to open in the mail.

In prison, Wissman said, everything was gray. The only color was her art. So she kept making it, buying supplies from those incarcerated with her. She got good. She even created an art therapy program in her prison.

Art gave her agency. It gave her something to do. It gave her power.

Even if it was only power over what she made with her hands.

An artful expression of experience

On the second floor of the Fitton Center in Hamilton, there is a picture frame. Near that frame are handcuffs. And above those handcuffs is a sign: “Supervisor criminal records.” The word creative is hammered over top the word criminal.

Credit: Nick Graham

Credit: Nick Graham

The picture frame is a window into a perspective that haunts Wissman to this day: the view from her tiny prison cell. Her piece hangs on the wall at an exhibition Wissman is co-curating at the Fitton Center. In the same room, there is another piece by Wissman. Etched into a chair are the words, “I forgive you.”

Wissman is free. But she doesn’t always feel free. Sometimes, her incarceration feels like it’s never over.

She was released in December of 2017. And when she went to the grocery store, she struggled with loud Christmas music. Crowded aisles. Bright colors and flashing lights.

It was all too much.

When she got out of prison, Wissman couldn’t figure out how to insert her credit card into a chip reader. And her phone didn’t ring for months, because she couldn’t find the button to turn it off silent.

Now, Wissman has graduated from college and is working as a full-time artist. A group she co-founded, the Returning Artists Guild, focuses on helping artists who have been or are currently incarcerated. In Ohio, almost one in 11 people have a felony conviction. And as many as one in three have a criminal record, according to Policy Matters Ohio, a Cleveland-based research group.

Sixteen people have their work displayed in Wissman’s new exhibit. Five are currently incarcerated. Eleven used to be.

Before entering the gallery, there is a sign warning of graphic and mature content. In one painting, a woman is pulling her own tooth out with pliers. The piece is called, “American Healthcare.” In another piece, a needle sticks out of someone’s arm. It’s called, “Relapse: The Eternal Battle.”

Cathy Mayhugh, director of exhibitions at the Fitton, said this is one of the most meaningful shows she’s ever been a part of.

“There is a lot of pain,” she said, “but also beauty.”

In Wissman’s life, there is pain and beauty as well. There probably always will be. It’s something she’s had to come to terms with. When she was released from prison, her daughter was 6 years old. She’d watched her grow up in a drab visiting hall.

Wissman’s daughter is in sixth grade now, and they live together in an apartment they both wish they could move out of. Wissman doesn’t often cook steak, because it is so expensive. But her daughter eats so much popcorn Wissman calls her “poppy.”

She thinks it is weird Wissman never wants any.

“Home Free” runs until Jan. 5, 2024 at The Fitton Center for Creative Arts, 101 S. Monument Ave., Hamilton. Galleries are free and open to the public.

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