May 26, 2016

SOLOS Spotlight: Gabriela Bulisova – Facing Locked Apart

written by Evan Odoms, AAC Marketing Intern

The great thing about our Spring SOLOS is the arrival of something new. What makes contemporary art so alluring is its relevance to our modern-day society.  In our last blog we examined gender roles through macramé and domesticity. This time, artist Gabriela Bulisova takes us on a journey into an unseen, and often ignored, part of our culture.

Arlington Arts Center, May 2016 'Spring Solos' (Gabriela Bulisova, Maggie Gourlay, Adam Hager, Jesse Harrod, R. Mertens, Lauren Rice, Amy Ritter) and 'As you spread, I am erased' (Hedieh Javanshir Ilchi).
Gabriela Bulisova, Locked Apart: The Impact of Incarceration on Families; The Koger-Harris Family.
photo by Dawn Whitmore

In Locked Apart Gabriela Bulisova’s work reveals the raw underbelly of family members whose loved ones are incarcerated in the Washington, DC area. These stories are familiar from TV and popular media, but when it comes to RL (real life) we don’t often face them for fear of discomfort.

Bullisova shows you the faces impacted by this human rights issue and demands a reaction.

Gabriela Bulisova, Locked Apart, installation view. photo by Dawn Whitmore
Gabriela Bulisova, Locked Apart, installation view.
photo by Dawn Whitmore

While taking a brisk walk through the Tiffany gallery, the gravity of this issue may not fully compute.

It is not until you learn the story of the people depicted in these images that you get immersed in their lives.

Bulisova’s work reads like a story, through her short film we are introduced to the Koger-Harris family. A family of six living in the District. The film starts off with 11 year-old Isaiah describing his mother’s facial features.

Isaiah’s mother is serving a long term sentence at Hazelton Penitentiary in Bruce Mills, West Virginia. As the film continues we are introduced to his brothers, father and grandmother.

“People are still surprised to learn that the U.S. imprisons more of its population than any nation on earth.”

The father, William, has been in out of jobs and prison, making it difficult to take care of his three children. His mother, Sandra Koger, has been the sole caregiver over the years, but has been stretched financially. The absence of their mother has also caused the children to act out and become withdrawn. All these factors become a domino effect on their lives.

“I started to understand that the family members of incarcerated people are victims too. They have not done anything wrong or illegal, yet they are being punished, stigmatized, deprived of love and affection, and denied financial support.”

Gabriela Bulisova, Locked Apart: The Impact of Incarceration on Families; The Koger-Harris Family, digital photograph, 36 x 24", 2015
Gabriela Bulisova, Locked Apart: The Impact of Incarceration on Families; The Koger-Harris Family, digital photograph.

Bullisova’s captures this perfectly in her black and white photographs. The grandmother looks physically worn out by her responsibilities as caregiver, and at one point is hunched over on the couch, and in another photograph pensively staring off into the distance. The children look into the camera with a sense of hope but also distress.

Bulisova mentions how it can be both satisfying and heart wrenching experience working with children, she states that there is a certain way you have to pose questions to children.

Demetri, 10, is brought up by his father and grandmother because his mother has been in prison for most of his life. He is bipolar, and according to his grandmother, he often “goes into his shell,” becoming depressed and unresponsive.
Demetri, 10, is brought up by his father and grandmother because his mother has been in prison for most of his life. He is bipolar, and according to his grandmother, he often “goes into his shell,” becoming depressed and unresponsive.

“You have to find exactly the right balance in asking them the right questions to get the full story without putting them through too much additional pain.”

The film does help you to learn their backstory but spending time in the gallery, you get a sense of closeness between the subject and the photographer.

In one picture Bulisova just photographs a close up of Ms. Kogers hands, and without seeing any kind of movement you can tell that she is wringing them in contemplation or anguish.

Locked Apart is a part of a larger project that includes multiple families from the nation’s capital as well as Pennsylvania, PA. Bulisova states that this project is a collaborative work between two other photographers, her husband Mark Isaac and Michelle Repiso. In order to gain trust from her subjects, Bulisova and her colleagues spent 18 months working with these families and sometimes the bond they created can take a toll.

“Gaining full access and sustaining trust are always essential for in-depth projects. But the closer you get, the more wrapped up you become in each family’s specific story, many of which are really tragic.”

This locker room at Hazelton Penitentiary in Bruceton Mills, WV, is where family members store their personal possessions before meeting with incarcerated relatives. They are then scrutinized carefully by prison personnel, who may turn them away if they fail to meet strict dress code requirements or for any other reason.
This locker room at Hazelton Penitentiary in Bruceton Mills, WV, is where family members store their personal possessions before meeting with incarcerated relatives.

Bulisova didn’t start off being a photojournalist. Born in former Czechoslovakia, under Communist rule and growing up as a teen during the Velvet Revolution, Bulisova definitely believes these factors influenced her decision to pursue art, specifically photojournalism. On her arrival to the US “a friend gave (her) an old 35mm film camera.”

This became a significant moment for Bulisova. “I immediately felt very natural with a camera, and I knew right away that photography was the way I wanted to express myself and tell stories about the world around me,” she said.

She studied at Maryland Institute College of Art as a graduate and undergraduate. There Bulisova focused on fine art and documentary photography.  Bulisova hopes to connect her fine art and photography background simultaneously. “I want to bring compelling storytelling into fine art practice, and I want to bring a personal aesthetic vision to documentary practice.”

Bulisova’s commitment to this issue is very apparent. Her passion is evident by her efforts to spread awareness and elicit change through her photographs.

“The closer you get, the more wrapped up you become in each family’s specific story.”

“Many people are still surprised to learn that the U.S. imprisons more of its population than any nation on earth. In many cases, we are jailing people long-term for non-violent drug offenses.”

By showcasing the faces and stories of incarcerated family members maybe in time we will see a change in US policies. If Locked Apart interests you should also check out Bulisova’s other work Convictions, which captures the lives of women re-entering society after being in prison.


To experience this show, come down to the Tiffany Gallery,  take a gander at her other SOLO cohorts on the Main and Lower levels as well as Resident Artist Hedieh Ilchi’s show on the Upper Level.

Our galleries are always free and open to the public Wednesday – Sunday, 12 pm – 5 pm. AAC is located at 3550 Wilson Blvd, across the street from the Virginia Square Metro. Mark your calendars for a gallery talk and closing reception on June 4. Together we’ll walk and talk our way through each of the SOLOS shows.

In Conversation: Nekisha Durrett + Zaq Landsberg

Saturday / April 27 / 1pm-3pm

Innovation Studio + Store

Join artists Zaq Landsberg and Nekisha Durrett for a conversation about the rewards and challenges of public art and the complex nature of monuments and memorials.

2024 Art Classes for Kids, Teens, and Adults!

Register now! Classes begin April 7!

Less than 2 weeks left to register! Sign up today to secure your spot in one of MoCA Arlington’s award-winning programs! From drawing and painting to ceramics and mixed media, you are sure to find an inspiring art class. Enrich your creative journey with our talented instructors and explore the world of art in a fun and supportive environment.

Solace and Sisterhood

February 22 - May 26, 2024

Meyer & Smith Galleries
Solace and Sisterhood brings together the work of Lavett Ballard, Amber Robles-Gordon, and Evita Tezeno.

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