“When I was a kid, I was always putting models together. My bedroom was full of hot rods, monster trucks and classic cars. Deep inside my soul, I am still that kid when it comes to building these vehicles. And when I’m immersed in building something from scratch, I am no longer in prison. I’m sitting in my bedroom, gluing in each piece, getting it just right. I hope you enjoy checking these out as much as I enjoyed creating them.”
That is the artist statement from Michael Hiltz-Denman, whose work appeared in the “23rd Annual Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners” in the Duderstadt Center. The exhibit showcases works created by people incarcerated in Michigan Department of Corrections facilities. Curators and volunteers visit artists in all 28 adult prisons to select work for the show. The pieces range in media, content and level of artistry, making for a diverse exhibit.
I don’t often think of the incarceration experience, save for the few times I drive past a corrections facility. Yet it was impossible not to consider it when looking at all the pieces. Some of the art directly addressed the experience, portraying the bars and the cells. Others, like “Monster or Victim?” by Parrish Collision, were clearly meant to make us question the conviction process. At first glance, the piece appears to be a huge human eye, drawn in close detail. But in the pupil, you can see the courtroom and two hands in handcuffs. I spent a long time wondering about the backstory of this artist and about the amount of artwork I saw that similarly hinted at wrongful convictions.
We could also read artists statements from those who decided to write one. As I flipped through the booklet, I was struck by the common threads — for many of them, art is a means to express themselves or remember different times, much like Hiltz-Denman’s statement. It was a surprisingly intimate look into the minds of prisoners, who we may often forget or choose not to think about because they dredge up conflicted feelings about the horrible crimes that have been committed and the way our system handles criminal behavior. I found the statements to be incredibly humanizing and a way for me to think about each individual, instead of thinking collectively of them as prisoners.
The exhibit also made me think beyond issues of incarceration or wrongful convictions. Artists made a variety of statements, whether personal, environmental or social. “Spill Ink Not Oil,” by Bradlee M. Patrick, is a watercolor and acrylic piece depicting an ocean in dark blue hues. The black that seeps into the water stems from a massive quill pen’s ink, and the colors drip off the canvas onto its mounting. This is a piece that’s stunning because it’s so simple and elegant. It doesn’t try hard to tell us what it’s about. Instead, its power is in the detailing of the feather and the droplets spraying off of it.
Another piece I spent a lot of time looking at was One Forgotten Part by Thomas Gordon. It’s a sculpture of a robot fashioned out of metal parts. One arm holds up a circular box with a mechanical heart placed inside it. A frame at the bottom of the piece showcases a poem written by the author, discussing how he was once a human but was changed into a lifeless bot. The ending lines hit at the dilemma Gordon is portraying: “They say I have no emotions and can’t feel pain, / Then why do I cry from the stress and strain, / Do they not realize they missed one part. / I still am suffering because they forgot my heart.”
It was tough for me to look at this work when I was wondering about why these people were incarcerated. A part of me wanted to believe these artists had done nothing wrong, but a few quick Google searches of some of them hinted at troubled backgrounds and serious crimes like sexual misconduct. It was an uncomfortable conflict, and I wasn’t sure how much empathy to feel or not feel, how much I was supposed to like the art or not like it. Though I want to ignore the discomfort, I know that I can’t. Instead, I must look at this art as a reminder that these incarcerated adults are people too, who have creativity, emotions and passions. And while it may be difficult for me to view, their art deserves the chance to be shared.