Sondheim prize goes to photographer who chronicled inmate's re-entry

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A photo from Gabriela Bulisova's project, "Time Zone", depicts  Lashawna Etheridge-Bey running after her release from an 18-year prison term.

Gabriela Bulisova, a Maryland Institute College of Art graduate whose photographs depict the return to freedom of a woman imprisoned half her life for a double murder, is the winner of this year's $25,000 Janet & Walter Sondheim Artscape Prize.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts announced Bulisova, of Alexandria, Va., as the winner at a ceremony at the Walters Art Museum on Saturday night. Three jurors chose her work from that of a group of six finalists, four of whom mainly focused on photography for their entries.


"I'm shocked," Bulisova said after the ceremony. "I had my own winner selected, and I was really surprised. I am extremely honored and grateful."

Bulisova's "Time Zone" exhibition is a multimedia project that profiles Lashawna Etheridge-Bey, a 39-year-old Washington resident who was released from prison in December 2011 after 18 years behind bars. For her entry, Bulisova chose a selection of photos from the collection as well as a 12-minute video featuring interviews with Etheridge-Bey and her mother, son and friend.


The untitled photos in the collection depict Etheridge-Bey's efforts to rebuild and reshape her life after her release. In one image, she tries on a suit donated to her as she was looking for a job. One depicts her behind bars — of a gate, this time — as she walks toward a house to visit one of her grown sons, who were under the age of 3 when she went to prison. Another simply shows her prison identification card, faded after years of use.

"Since the very moment we met, we understood we were highly suitable to work together," Bulisova said of Etheridge-Bey. "She had a story she wanted to tell. She gives a face to a number, to a statistic, that a second chance is indeed possible."

Bulisova plans to put the prize money toward more work focused on issues related to incarceration.

"It's a wonderful opportunity for artists," she said of the prize.

Bulisova's work, along with that of all of the Sondheim award finalists, is on display through Aug. 11 in an exhibition at the Walters. The museum is hosting the exhibition for the first time in the award's eight-year history. In past years, it has appeared at MICA and at the Baltimore Museum of Art in conjunction with Artscape, the annual free arts festival that takes place Thursday until next Sunday.

Bulisova, a native of the former Czechoslovakia, graduated from MICA in 2005 with a Master of Fine Arts degree. Her work has been exhibited frequently in the Washington area, where she is a photojournalism instructor at the Corcoran College of Art and Design.