Peter Collins’ memorial was held on the warm fall evening of September 15, 2015, at the Quebec Public Interest Research Group (QPIRG) Concordia, a Montreal-based organization that supports grassroots student and community organizing. I knew about Peter from Fly in the Ointment (2015), a video he made about his experiences with solitary confinement that had been posted online and shared many times. The QPIRG space was full; friends, family, and peers sat in front of floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking downtown streets. Projections of Peter’s drawings and paintings looped on a portable screen, and his original artworks were propped up on easels and pinned to the wall. Veggie platters and cookies surrounded sugar packets and mugs. I listened as people in the room did a heartfelt, tearful go-around about the influence of “Pete” on their lives. In all their stories, I heard a sense of anger about the prison conditions under which he had died. As an artist making work behind bars, Peter highlighted through his pieces the grave injustices committed by Correctional Service Canada (CSC); these works, in turn, diminished his chances for parole and release.
Born on August 22, 1961, in England, Peter moved with his family to Ottawa in 1967. They describe him as a curious, kind, and intelligent kid—particularly fond of animals, who were drawn to his quiet nature. Things became difficult at home and school, and Peter left his family home at an early age. On the streets he was vulnerable to people who prey on youth. He eventually came into trouble with the law, and from there things began to escalate. Peter was arrested for a number of bank robberies in 1983. Later that year, he escaped the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre. While on the run, Peter shot and killed Nepean Police Const. David Utman during a botched bank robbery attempt. In a 2015 interview with the Ottawa Citizen, Peter speaks in the third person about who he was when he murdered Utman:
In the generous emails, letters, and conversations I exchanged with his family and friends while writing this piece, “Pete” and “Peter” were used interchangeably. Using “Collins” for this text seems too formal—I’m told he was not a fan of formalities—and “Collins” is what the CSC staff called him. I still feel unsure about calling him Pete, as we never met or corresponded, so I’ve chosen to use Peter in this essay. According to his sister Lucy Collins, Peter began making pen and ink drawings of birds of prey in the 1980s, when he first began his life sentence.Robert Collins, Joan Ruzsa, and Lucy Collins, “Pete’s Art,” email message to author, March 25, 2016.From there, his art practice expanded to include painting, mixed media, video, writing, and audio-based work. These pieces were passed around on the inside and sent to friends, family, and comrades via mail, in ornately designed envelopes. Regardless of material or form, the theme of CSC’s failure underlies all of Peter’s works: the failure to care for those struggling, the failure to “rehabilitate,” and the failure to think outside of the prison walls.
Fly in the Ointment (2015), the video that Peter made in the last year of his life, is stark, angular, and cold, all greys and white-blues. We see a glass jar sitting upside down on a plinth; a fly buzzes about, trapped inside. We hear Peter’s calm voice in a diaristic narration. The audio was recorded in Bath Institution, a medium-security federal prison twenty kilometres west of Kingston, Ontario, where Peter spent most of his incarceration. This was later paired with the film shot by a team on the outside that included Sheenah Jennings, Martin Zeilinger, Suzanne Fish, and Judith Muster. Peter narrates an autobiographical text about being in solitary confinement, highlighting the physical and psychological torture of that experience. The juxtaposition of claustrophobic visuals and the contemplative voice-over highlights his strategy for survival. In a particularly vivid section, he recounts creating an ointment of blood and spit to lure flies to his skin:
At the end of the video, the camera slowly zooms in to the glass jar and the fly inside stops moving. The screen fades to black.
Fly in the Ointment is part meditation and part call to action. After the credits roll, the video displays links to online resources and prison abolition organizations, such as Critical Resistance, equipping the viewer with political tools. The video is readily available on YouTube and has screened at numerous film festivals, although Peter never saw the finished piece himself. Inside prison, internet and video access is highly restricted. In place of a screening, Peter’s collaborators on the outside sent him printed stills that were sequenced to give an impression of movement, like a flipbook.Suzanne Fish, telephone interview by author, March 14, 2016.
Jailbird (2011), a 2-D series made over the course of two years, strikes a significantly different tone, taking place both inside and outside the prison perimeter. Mixed media on paper, these works depict highly detailed landscapes, prison architecture, and wildlife—especially birds. In a 2012 text about the series, Peter writes, “The more I look at these paintings, the more I would like to continue to create paintings that represent the many different birds that travel to all the different prisons across this planet, bringing with them, on the wing, the hope and promise of something other than imprisonment.”The Jailbird Series, artist statement, (Bath, ON: Self-published, 2012).In one work, Sparrow by the Window, a small bird nests between a brick wall and steel cell bars, caged in on three sides. Textured and filled with intricate details, the image, seen close-up, is claustrophobic and perilous. In another work, Peregrine Falcon and Wall, the viewer gazes up from below to see a falcon perched on a concrete wall that stretches into the distance, with layers of razor wire leaning in. In Great Horned Owl and Field, a fence runs to the horizon. The prison is far away and out of focus; an owl sits on a fence post and stares back at the viewer. The animals in these three paintings occupy three different positions—inside, on a wall, far away on the outside—but all look to a future beyond incarceration.
In addition to depicting his own experiences with incarceration, Peter also made art about others’ struggles on the inside. One of his drawings, Aboriginal Strategy (2012), appears in the 2015–2016 Certain Days Freedom for Political Prisoners Calendar. The piece depicts a visual cacophony of razor wire, security cameras, fencing, bright lights, lightning, and bird eyes, all under the cover of darkness. The mark-making is feverous and scratch-like, with various phrases cut into the nighttime imagery: Poverty Tipping Point, Conservative Refugee Reception Centre, Canada’s Black Housing Project, Canada’s Mental Health Care Unit, Canada’s Battered Women’s Shelter, Where G8-G20 Protesters Go / Home if You Protest, and simply, Prison. This work powerfully underlines the ways in which incarceration is used by the state as a control mechanism to repress the underprivileged.
Peter began working on issues related to Indigenous solidarity during the siege of Kanehsatake (also known as the Oka Crisis) in 1990, when he drew the picture Stolen Land (1990). The drawing was eventually printed on T-shirts, one of which was gifted to Elijah Harper, politician and then Chief of the Red Sucker Lake First Nation. When Peter underwent an immigration hearing as part of his sentence—because of his British citizenship—he refused to stand for the judge until the “original people of the land” were also present in court. Peter felt strongly that Indigenous peoples were facing ongoing colonization, a reality reflected by their over-incarceration in Canadian prisons.Giselle Dias, telephone interview by author, March 22, 2016.
Annie Gurlle (2014) is a stark and potent hand-painted graphic novel, created in response to the death of Ashley Smith. On October 17, 2009, Smith died at age nineteen from self-strangulation in the Grand Valley Institution for Women in Kitchener, Ontario, where she had been held in solitary confinement for extended periods and was experiencing severe mental health distress that included frequent self-harm. The guards at Grand Valley were instructed by CSC officials against interfering when Smith self-harmed, unless her breathing was affected. On the day of her death, the guards waited until Smith was no longer moving before they stepped in.Alexandria Campbell, “A Place Apart: The Harm of Solitary Confinement,” (master's thesis, University of Toronto, 2012), https://tspace.library.utoronto.ca/handle/1807/33351.
Robert Collins and close friend Joan Ruzsa describe Annie Gurlle as one of the projects that meant the most to Peter, as it spoke to the experiences of the many women in Smith’s situation: she was originally detained for years in youth facilities for minor offences, a history that led to violent behaviour resulting in prolonged confinement. In one image from the Annie Gurlle series, a young woman with bloodshot eyes sits hunched in the corner of a dark, concrete cell, peering up towards the light streaming through a doorway. Her expression is one of terror. In another, the same girl peers through the slit in a steel doorway with the same expression, tears welling in her eyes. Peter’s friend Dug recalls a beautiful portrait of Smith that Peter had drawn hanging on the wall of their shared CSC living space. One day, the guards took down the drawing, and it was never returned, not even by the time that Dug left Bath Institution.Letter to Giselle Dias and Sheena Hoszko, February 2016.
Peter and Giselle Dias first met while she was working with the non-profit Prison Arts Foundation in 1995. For years, they maintained contact via letters and phone calls. They supported each other through day-to-day experiences and challenged each other politically. Over the years they became like family. In a phone conversation, Dias recounted that it was difficult for Peter to comprehend the scope and scale of how far his work reached. She felt it was important for herself and others to reflect back to Peter the way people were drawn to his work and, in one of her last visits with him, talked to him about all the ways his work moved and lived on the outside. Peter was particularly proud of his poster Pelican (2011), which became widely distributed in Canada and the United States through independent media and prison justice networks.
Peter created Pelican in solidarity with prisoners at California’s Pelican Bay, a supermax prison where every inmate is held in solitary confinement, or “Special Housing Units.” In 2011, Pelican Bay inmates went on a massive hunger strike. Lasting sixty days, the strike was coordinated by four main prisoner organizers and, at its peak, included 30,000 inmates across California. Prisoners on strike released the “Agreement to End Hostilities,” a call to organize collaboratively across racial differences against the prison industrial complex.PBSP-SHU Short Corridor Collective, “Agreement to End Hostilities” (Pelican Bay, CA: Self-published, 2012).This was an unprecedented demand from within the prison system, which has long been violently segregated along racial lines. As a white man incarcerated in Canada, Peter’s Pelican materialized this call for unity, and his solidarity with the Pelican Bay strikers moved across racial lines, prison walls, and colonially created state borders.
As a visual artist living and working in Montreal, I’ve noticed a surge of interest in and production of art about the prison industrial complex by people who have not personally experienced incarceration. But there has not been a parallel visibility for artwork made by current and former prisoners. Art in circulation has transactional value—it is shared, shown, traded, exhibited, and passed along; it also produces recognition, as people identify with it or in opposition to it. Depending on intent and reception, art resonates or challenges, soothes or corrodes. The lack of attention to art made on the inside devalues those who are incarcerated, as if their perspective is not worth witnessing and sharing. I often wonder about all the work that is produced inside, where it ends up, and how we might access, remember, and share this artistic labour. Kristin Li, a member of Montreal’s Prisoner Correspondence Project (PCP), let me know that PCP receives a lot of art by queer and trans people incarcerated in Canada and the United States—two to six pieces a week. The works are used for promotion, published in the PCP newsletter, and displayed in art shows. According to Li, members of the PCP are careful to keep everything that they’ve received over the years.“Prisoner Correspondence Project,” email message to author, April 25, 2015.I wish there were more groups doing work like the PCP. Hearing about the group’s practices, I think about the responsibility of people on the outside to put resources towards amplifying unheard voices from the inside, and to work with those previously or currently incarcerated in making spaces for their art.
In contrast to the many neglected works made by other prisoners, Peter’s art has circulated widely, despite his incarceration and death. According to Robert Collins and Ruzsa,
Even though Peter was a CSC-appointed peer counsellor for a short time—helping guys with their cases, HIV prevention, and coping with day-to-day life—his artistic endeavours were always under scrutiny from CSC. The administration transmitted his subversive messages about the prison justice system to the Parole Board of Canada, which is responsible for granting releases. According to Robert Collins and Ruzsa,
In Canada, people sentenced to life are eligible for parole after serving a certain amount of time, between fifteen and 25 years. After approval by the parole board, many lifers go on to live in halfway houses or with family, while under the watch of CSC. Though Peter received many parole hearings, he was never given this option. Robert Collins reflected on the ways that Peter’s artwork made him more vulnerable to punishment:
Peter died of late-stage cancer at 53, in the summer of 2015. Just before he died, activists around Canada mobilized to purchase a hospital bed to make his last days more comfortable. At the time of his death, he had spent 32 years inside Bath. Multiple requests for parole and compassionate release—often granted to prisoners at the end of their lives—were denied to him. According to friends and family, this treatment was CSC’s response to Peter’s art and activism. Peter’s brother Chris Collins wrote about this in Cow’s Tongue, a personal blog documenting Peter’s struggles on the inside. The blog entries, a summary of emails and letters, cover the period from January 2015 until Peter’s passing on August 13, 2015. In a post entitled “Palliative Care in CSC,” Chris provides a detailed account of CSC’s neglect of Peter’s illness. Among other forms of mistreatment, the administration lost Peter’s blood work, provided inadequate transportation to the hospital (resulting in missed appointments), repeatedly denied him pain medication, and delayed his cancer treatment.“Palliative Care in the CSC,” Cow’s Tongue (blog), September 22, 2015, http://cowstongue.com/2015/09/22/palliative-care-in-the-csc/.
Dias recalls that Peter always wanted to be the best person he could be. He couldn’t make up for what he had done to Utman and the choices he had made, though he felt that he owed it to the victim’s family—as well as his own—to try. Peter also felt a great need to speak out about injustice in prison and around the world, even though he knew that making politicized artwork led to CSC harassment and prevented him from obtaining parole, adequate health care, and compassionate release.
Marty, a longtime friend on the inside, joked about Peter’s “Dr. Dolittle” status among other prisoners, based on his deep love of animals.“Peter’s Art.” Letter to Giselle Dias and Sheena Hoszko, February 2016.In a post on the Peter Collins Support Committee Facebook page, a friend named James recalls Peter “repurposing” window mosquito screens into small outdoor shelters, structures where injured birds could rest and heal. Once CSC got wind of this, the shelters were quickly destroyed, even though they had no consequence on the prison’s operations.Peter Collins Support Committee Facebook page, accessed March 2016, https://www.facebook.com/PeterCollinsSupportCommittee/.After this incident, Peter found ways to keep birds on wall ledges or above the doorways to his housing unit. At a certain point, Peter became concerned that getting caught again for helping the birds would get him “more heat than the political pictures,” because CSC perceived him as anti-authoritarian and a shit-disturber. So he passed on the task to other guys on the inside, who would visit him and get instructions on making the bird food and feeding them. Since his death, other prisoners have continued caring for birds around the prison.“Peter’s Art.”This type of care is pervasive in Peter’s work, and in the ways his art affected others. Dias speaks of how we can find solace in his caring worldview:
As Peter’s Montreal memorial came to an end, those in attendance folded the chairs and exchanged long hugs. The projector was turned off and tables wiped down, crumbs swept to the floor. Not really knowing anyone, I walked out into the city night, got on my bike and rode off—thinking, feeling. I reflected on who stays in and who gets out, why people are caged in and why they leave. The next day, I sent my father a link to the Fly in the Ointment video. We had been talking about Peter’s art, as my father remembered hearing about Peter on the local Ottawa-Hull news in the 1980s. We had also been speaking about my father’s times in and out of jail, and about how his weeks on the inside were nothing compared to the unimaginable time of lifers. I got this response to my email: