Visual Artist, Teacher and Co-Host of Hit Podcast Comes to DU
Nigel Poor is the co-creator and co-host of the award-winning prison-based podcast, Ear Hustle.
As a child, Nigel Poor’s bedroom closet was stacked with labeled shoeboxes housing her “collections.” She felt driven to keep track of people’s objects, their stories and of time itself.
“I thought that’s what an artist does. They look at things and try to make sense of who people are, how they think. As an artist, I’m interested in what we do with our limited time — why are we here? How do we find purpose? How do people make a mark?”
Now, Poor teaches photography at California State University, Sacramento where she first began working with incarcerated people through the Prison University Project.
“Teaching is a profession that allows me to make art, share it with people and encourage people. I’m dyslexic and have other learning issues; I know that without good teachers I wouldn’t be able to have the career I have now.”
Poor considers much of her creative work, across mediums, to be portraiture. This concept moves well beyond conventional photographs of faces and into an understanding of individual and social meaning.
“My projects are opportunities for myself and the people I work with to think more about not just who we are, but who we are in the world. That’s what helps us give a fuller portrait of ourselves. I like to do projects that honor the humble, the overlooked, the quiet people who are probably the most powerful people around.”
At first, Poor set out to do a visual project, documented in photographs and film. As she spent more time working with incarcerated individuals, “portraiture” expanded to include audio and first-person storytelling. Poor hasn’t had any formal training in working in the prison system. Instead, she credits an ability to simply — and profoundly — listen with the impact of her radio and podcasting projects.
“I took the skills I learned as an artist, which is someone who observes and listens, and went out into a community to figure out where I fit in. I think of myself as a creator: I have to ask, what does it mean to think about the balance of collaborating with other people while also bringing the ideas and skills I have to the table.”
Since 2013, Poor has worked on Ear Hustle with Earlonne Woods, during the time he was incarcerated in San Quentin and since his release last year. Long-lasting relationships like these make for a more meaningful appreciation of what it means to collaborate in an empathetic capacity.
“When we decided to do audio,” Poor said, “I didn’t know anything about audio, the men didn’t know anything about audio. So, we had to teach each other and learn from each other. That created a really powerful connection between us. I was as reliant on them as they were on me to learn this process. That’s one of the things that made the audio work successful — it’s a genuine collaboration.”
Ear Hustle tells the daily realities of life inside prison shared by those living it, and stories from the outside, post-incarceration. Thirty to 40-minute stories center on a theme, which is explored from two to three, first-person narrative points of view. Poor’s role as co-host is to provide a perspective from outside the prison system, asking questions and dialoguing with individuals who live these stories day to day.
“It’s not a crime podcast. Instead, we talk about what happens after you come to prison and how you make a life inside. We’ve done stories about being a parent, taking care of pets, dealing with race issues and how life on death row effects your five senses. It’s also very sound rich. Everything is created inside the prison — all the music is performed and recorded by the men inside.”
This year’s Harper Distinguished Speaker, Poor will visit DU on November 14 and give an on-stage interview with Associate Professor of Art Sarah Gjertson. The event will provide the opportunity to learn more about collaborating with underserved communities, the meaningful ways artists engage with the world and how listening with empathy and humility — especially to those whose stories so often go unheard — drives Poor’s creative approach.
“So often you meet people who really question why they’re here and if they matter,” Poor said. “It’s so exciting when you see somebody all the sudden realize, ‘What I’m thinking is actually important. I have worth.’ That’s what a good teacher, and good listener, does.”
Pictured above Nigel Poor in the Ear Hustle studio, photo by Earlonne Woods.