The United States currently incarcerates 2.2 million people, a number that has increased fivefold in the past thirty years. There are currently 40,000 individuals incarcerated in the state of Michigan. In conjunction with a series of lectures, art exhibitions and other events happening locally this spring through the Humanize the Numbers project, the University’s Prison Creative Arts Program’s annual Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners sheds light on the experience of being incarcerated and the ways in which humanity can be restored in the face of a system highly based on punishment.
In working with the PCAP over the past two decades, Art Prof. Janie Paul has helped to give a creative voice to such populations often silenced by a life behind bars. She founded the PCAP Art Show with her husband Buzz Alexander in 1996.
Paul said her observation of the injustice in the country’s system of incarceration, coupled with her experience and identity as a visual artist led to her involvement with PCAP.
“It turned out the first year that it was so compelling that we made it an annual event,” Paul said.
She collaborated with curators Sari Adelson and Charlie Michaels, a project coordinator in the Stamps School of Art & Design, Adelson said the curatorial timeline for the project is exhaustive.
“The very first step is that we have to get approval from the Department of Corrections,” Adelson said. “And once we get that we send out a letter to all of the people who were in the show the year before, letting them know the show is going happen, letting them know what the theme is going to be … (then) we contact the special activities director at each of the facilities to set up a date and time for us to physically come and visit and meet with the men or women to see their work and then make our decisions.”
“The artwork then goes through a process of being photographed and matted and then installed,” Paul added.
Adelson highlighted a piece called Cerca Trova, a large, colorful and detailed watercolor by a prisoner of something the inmate calls “Little Rik’s World.” Amid the chaotic narrative scenes of his artwork, he always paints himself, “Little Rik,” a small boy with a beret and a magenta crayon, into his pieces.
“He’s telling a really in-depth story. He uses a lot of his personal history and also cryptographs and linguistics,” Adelson said.
“His work is happy, it’s humorous. It’s also sad. It’s cynical. It’s political,” she continued. Amid the hundreds of signs, buildings, humans, animals and other creations Rik has included, Adelson added that Rik even painted a cartoon of her into the painting.
Although the process starts months before the show opens, the curators make the visits to 30 prisons included in the project during January and February, which Paul noted was also challenging.
The group makes on average two trips to the facilities each week during the winter, with some trips to farther parts of the state taking a whole weekend. The curators also collect art from prisons in the Upper Peninsula, a trip that can take four or five days.
“What’s challenging is that you know that, especially in the prisons that are further away from Ann Arbor that aren’t getting a lot of regular programming from us. A lot of these artists have waited an entire year to have this one five-to-ten minute conversation with you and you can feel that and I’m really aware of that going in,” Michaels said.
Although visiting up to three or four facilities in a single day can be emotionally draining, Paul said is also “exhilarating and inspiring.”
Michaels pointed to a particularly impressive piece done by artist Samantha Bachynski of an anatomically correct, life-sized crocheted skeleton. He says that Bachynski wasn’t allowed to have it fully assembled in her cell and waited until all the pieces were completed to put the whole sculpture together. When he visited her, she showed him 50 pages of handwritten diagrams.
The curators emphasized that face-to-face interaction with the artists is important, noting that it’s the first year that all of the prisons have allowed them to meet individually and in groups with all of the 420 artists in person, as opposed to simply collecting the art.
Although many of the pieces in the exhibition reflect years of experience, most of the artists have never received formal training. In many of the facilities, though, curators said there is a culture of people educating each other and working within the limited scope of what’s available inside. One man writes letters to his mother to send him pictures of kitchen sinks or household objects he wants to paint. Another, D’Artagnan Little, created sculptures of presidents using only toilet paper, soap and pigments lifted from magazine pages.
“A lot of people will say that they loved art when they were a kid,” Paul said. “They loved to draw but it never went anywhere. They didn’t get the classes; they didn’t get the support.”
The exhibit tries to incorporate the artists as much as possible. The art is for sale, and the artists name their own prices. Aside from the 21 percent tax on the pieces, all proceeds go directly back to the artists. In addition, the artists designate a family member or friend to receive the art for them if it doesn’t sell.
Additionally, the exhibit includes a guestbook for visitors to sign, leaving notes or feedback on the art. The entire book is then copied and sent to the artists.
“The project goes on all year round because it’s very important for us to be including the artists in many ways since they can’t be here,” Paul said. “After the show is finished we make a video in which we include every piece in the show. This video includes shots of the reception and is sent to each prison where it is shown over closed-circuit TV.”
Paul said one of her favorite pieces was a self-portrait titled “Orange Nation” by R. DeJesus, a man serving 60 to 100 years for distribution of crack cocaine and having trouble getting a lawyer. It depicts the straight-on view of the artist from the shoulders up in the foreground, the shadows of barbed wire crisscrossing his face. The background is filled with fellow inmates, talking and working out; one interacts with a prison guard whose face is obscured, another is elderly and in a wheelchair. If it were a photograph, DeJesus would stare directly into the camera lens, his expression somber and silent.
“He’s asking us, I think, to do something about it,” Paul said.