By John Bohn, Daily Arts Writer
Published March 19, 2013
Tuesday, at the opening reception for the 18th annual Prison Creative Arts Program (PCAP) Exhibition, over 500 eager family members and friends of the incarcerated walked through the gallery observing their loved ones’ artwork. A few of them participated in a reading of creative writing that their loved ones asked them to do. Some of the readings were from those who’ve since returned home from prison. All of this came together for what is the largest national Prison Arts exhibit.
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In 1990, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of English William “Buzz” Alexander found that one of his students, Liz Boner, was taking art supplies to two lifers at the Florence Crane Women’s Facility in Coldwater, Mich. The lifers were enrolled at the University but couldn’t come to the campus. Alexander, Boner and fellow student Julie Rancilio came together to offer a workshop to these two women. Alexander brought with him an exercise in which he allowed the women to ask him, Boner and Rancilio any questions they had.
“The first question was, what are you doing here? Are you studying us?” Alexander said in an interview with the Daily. “We had to speak very honestly … and we may not have answered them correctly, but they could hear in our voices that we were trying really hard. So, at the end, one of them turned to the other and said we need to open this up to the whole prison.”
Sixty of the 120 women who signed up for the first workshop showed up.
“When I came in, they stood in a circle and held hands which I hadn’t asked them to do,” Alexander said. “So there was something special in the room. Then I did an exercise which was the wrong exercise.”
The exercise, Vampire, can be found in any theater group. Actors are asked to walk around, eyes closed, and scream when they feel hands on their throat. In a correctional facility, where some would be dealing with histories of abuse or rape, the exercise wouldn’t translate well.
“I didn’t know where I was,” Alexander said. “But then I gathered the ones that were left and said, ‘We’re going to be here every week from now on.’ ”
Since that first meeting, they have, together, performed 606 plays continuously for the past 33 years, making them the longest-living women’s prison group in the country. Over the years, this initial project exploded into a variety of others including creative writing and painting workshops, as well as more theater programs offered in correctional facilities throughout the state of Michigan. A large contribution to this effort are the courses Alexander has offered at the University where students are given a chance to facilitate these workshops. English 310 and 319 cover theater and writing and are taught by Alexander. His wife, Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design Professor Janie Paul, offers a course through A&D that covers painting workshops.
To join a course, students must have a meeting with Alexander in which he explains exactly what the students are getting into in addition to asking them about why they would take such a course.
“Why do you want to work with someone that everybody else thinks is dangerous?” Alexander asks.
University alum Sari Adelson joined PCAP during her undergrad years. After graduating in 2007, she continued working with PCAP and since then has become one of the four curators, along with Alexander, Paul and Charlie Michaels.
“Prisons are not pretty places,” Adelson said. “They are not happy places … there is no sensory input whatsoever.”
The prospect of working with incarcerated youth or adults didn’t make her uncomfortable. The discomforting part was her experience with the prison system itself.
“The most difficult part for me is having to go in and out of this gated area where someone completely pats you down, puts you through a metal detector, makes you take your shoes and socks off, makes you pull your hair behind your ears, looks in your nose and mouth,” Adelson said.