If there's a place in Idaho that has a claim to being haunted, it's the Old Idaho Penitentiary. A number of paranormal investigator groups, including the folks at the Travel Channel's Ghost Adventures, have documented unexplainable occurrences there, and though no conclusive evidence proves the place has ghosts, the legend surrounding the old prison has only grown.
Now in its fourth year, Swell Artist Collective's 32 Cells exhibition at the penitentiary will make the most out of that legend and the history behind what is now a tourist attraction and concert venue on Saturday, Aug. 10, from 6-10 p.m. A blend of artistry and Idaho history, the show features 32 works of art by local Swell-affiliated artists inspired by the origin stories of the penitentiary's inmates and guards. The art is hung on prison cell doors for viewing. With self-guided tours, music, a full bar from Jo's Traveling Bar, and food from Foxy Franks and Rio Grande, this event will be both a party and a haunting glimpse into the building's and the state's past.
The first 32 Cells show was the brainchild of Swell's Noble Hardesty and Kelly Knopp back when both ran the artist collective (it is now run by just Hardesty). Knopp had been designing posters for the penitentiary, and when he pitched the idea, it took off.
"We thought it would be a great way to engage art and history enthusiasts at the same time," Knopp said. "It's probably the coolest setting for an art show in Boise in my opinion, or at least the creepiest."
- Sarah Terrell
The Old Idaho Penitentiary was a functional prison from 1872 until 1973, housing some of "the west's most desperate criminals," according to the Idaho State Historical Society website. Visiting the penitentiary for the 32 Cells show is a learning experience in itself. Tours of the prison give visitors a chance to see the solitary confinement facility, cell blocks and the gallows—and with the 32 Cells show, that history is augmented by the art. Each year the Historical Society provides 32 inmate bios to the artists participating in the show.
"An inmate's story seems so throwaway, this brings that back," Hardesty said. "There's a lot of stories to be told and interesting people who have passed through."
Each year, Swell Collective picks a theme for its inmates and the art. Next year's will be women's suffrage and most likely an all-women's show. This year's theme is art, sports and recreation, and features stories of inmate musicians, artists, athletes and craftsmen.
"It made sense to do this year's theme," Hardesty said. "I think it's enlightening to let people know that inmates didn't just sit on their hands while incarcerated: They were doing things."
Each artist takes inmate or guard bios and creates an original art piece in their medium of choice. Knopp's piece for this year's show is based off the true accounts of inmate Harry Atwill Silvery aka, "The Cowboy Crooner."
"My art is a representation of what his record album cover may have looked like if his musical career would have taken off," Knopp said.
For those going to the event for the first time, it's recommended for ages 13 and older due to its graphic nature. The popular event draws roughly 900 people to the opening reception, a feat considering the location, the Boise August heat—a huge crowd for the opening night of a midsummer arts exhibition.
"So many people show up, it blows my mind," Hardesty said. "That doesn't happen at a lot of art shows. It's impressive."
The experience itself can be a mix of enlightening, harsh, entertaining, or even horrifying. While the art and "party-vibe" of the event are meant to lighten the mood, it's an unavoidable reality that the setting is still a prison and that the stories being told are of some of Idaho's worst criminals.
"I think it's almost the ambulance chaser in all of us that needs to check it out, but in a really safe way," Hardesty said. "There's so much history. I've had people ask me how I can glorify this stuff but I'm not glorifying anything, it's just part of the chain of people doing bad things and needing to pay for it. We've had people leave but we've also had people stay and enjoy themselves."
Entry is $8 and includes self-guided tours of the Penitentiary. Ticket sales benefit Swell Artist Collective and the Idaho State Historical Society's Ray Knight Memorial Scholarship for Idaho school field trips. Tickets are available online through the Idaho State Historical Society website.