‘Herman’s House’: Dreaming Up the Ideal Home After 40 Years in a Single Cell

Artist Jackie Sumell enters inmate Herman Wallace’s solitary confinement and finds that freedom lives in imagination.

“What kind of house do a man in solitary dream about?” asks Herman Wallace. “I don’t dream about no house.”

Herman Wallace has been housed in solitary confinement in Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola since 1972, convicted along with two other Black Panthers in the killing of a prison guard.

MORE: America’s Out-of-Control Jail Culture

Brooklyn-born artist Jackie Sumell learned about Herman Wallace when she attended a lecture by Robert King Wilkerson following Wilkerson’s 2001 release from 29 years of solitary confinement at Angola.

“What kind of a house does a man who has lived in a six-foot-by-nine-foot cell for over 30 years dream of?”

Wilkerson was a codefendant in the same crime Herman Wallace is still locked up for.

Provoked by Wilkerson’s message, Sumell sent Wallace a letter asking him one question:

“What kind of a house does a man who has lived in a six-foot-by-nine-foot cell for over 30 years dream of?”

Defying the confining circumstances, Sumell’s query inspired Wallace to dream.

An exchange of 500 letters resulted in detailed plans for Herman Wallace’s dream house, a multimedia art exhibit that featured a mock up of Wallace’s cell contrasted with a scale model of his imagined refuge, an unlikely-but-inevitable friendship, and the 2012 documentary film, Herman’s House.

Where does a man who has been essentially locked in a closet for the majority of his life begin when envisioning his ideal abode?

For starters, Herman Wallace specifies: “In the front of the house I have three square gardens. I would like for guests to be able to smile and walk through flowers all year long.”

From that foundation, Wallace and Sumell build an amazing monument to the redemptive power of imagination and the undying spirit of hospitality.

For the full artist’s rendering, you’ll need to go beyond the trailer video and seek out a screening of the full-length feature.

What dreams do you hold onto for strength and hope? Share the vision in COMMENTS.

Thanks to Colorlines for the lead.

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Allan MacDonell is TakePart’s News + Opinion editor, with a focus on social justice. Email Allan | @Allan_MacDonell