Creating art from within: A profile of the Prison Creative Arts Project

BY CHANTEL JENNINGS

Published September 20, 2010

It would have been one thing to interview a criminal in prison.

To walk in confident he or she had been patted down, knowing guards were within shouting distance and that cameras were recording our every move.

But to interview a man who had spent 12 years behind bars while sitting in his living room alone, knowing my feeble sense of security was only within myself, that was another thing.

The feeling didn’t strike until the morning of the interview, and when I got out of bed I considered allowing the fear in my stomach to disguise itself as an illness. I considered not doing the interview at all.

But I hated myself for that — that I was more nervous about sitting with an ex-prisoner in his home, rather than sitting with a current prisoner in a cellblock. After all, I wasn't going to meet an ex-prisoner. I was going to meet an artist. It was this realization that pushed me out the door and into the car that would take me 70 miles to the home of Fernando Delezica.

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By the time I reached Delezica’s home my fear had more or less subsided.

His small apartment was carved into the lower level of a cookie-cutter home built in the 1960s. A small staircase led from the driveway down to his apartment. When I pulled up, the door opened almost immediately and a small man came rushing up the steps.

“I’m so sorry it was difficult for you to find my place,” he said over and over again before introducing himself.

He was shorter than me. His white sneakers produced a striking contrast to the dark blue of his jeans. He wore a cotton polo and his hair was a bit disheveled, as if he too had felt unsettled about how to prepare for the interview.

Last fall I facilitated a poetry workshop in a Detroit juvenile facility through the Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP), a University organization that pairs up students with prisons, juvenile facilities and select Detroit high schools. PCAP members work side-by-side with inmates to collaborate on original works of art, writing, music and theatre.

After my semester with PCAP, the words ‘compassion’ and ‘understanding’ seemed to take on another definition for me. Prisoners and juvenile delinquents that were once only a thing I heard of on the evening news now had faces and names that held a solid part of my heart. People like Delezica were no longer inmates, but artists.

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“I’m about to get to my point,” Delezica promised after 45 minutes of talking about his experience with PCAP — the organization that, as he describes it, changed his life.

“But I need to stop before I get too emotional,” he quivered. After looking around the room, Delezica got up and grabbed some of his acrylic paintings, pointing out the different paint strokes and colors. One wasn’t finished completely, the tree in the background was more or less finished but the windmill still needed a bit of work. It was the groundwork for what Delezica said would be a painting of the "memory of a place he'd never been."

He wanted me to know that he had talent, that these pieces meant something to him, because for 12 years Delezica was told by the state that he had nothing. And talent? Convicts don’t have talent. They have time. Time spent in a 7' x 10' foot box. They have time to sit and think in an iron casket that society calls a cell.

When Delezica talks about his first eight years in prison his eyes glaze a bit. They were hard, he admits. He was discouraged, and finding it difficult to be anything other than that while in prison.

But in the eighth year, he says, beginning to speak more quickly, a friend of his inside convinced him to go to this art class run by some organization called PCAP that was happening every week at the prison.

And what was at first, for Delezica, just some class taught by a woman from Ann Arbor quickly became a space that allowed him to find himself again through art, to find his voice amid the inaudible mess that prison was.

“This is what we’re told by staff when we come through what they call the ‘bubble’ there at quarantine: ‘You’ve pretty much been rejected by society, you’re nothin’ but a piece of garbage and good luck to ya. We don’t care what happens to you,’” Delezica says. “But here comes a whole team of people that say: ‘We have an avenue for you to express what’s in your heart, what’s in your mind, what’s really troubling you. And we’re willing to accept it and we’re willing to accept you with your struggle. What you did is not what you are.’”

And in the first brief moment of silence more than an hour into our conversation I ask my first and only question of the interview.

I point to a snapshot on the far wall that depicts a small boat’s silhouette on calm water. “Where did you take that photograph?”

“That’s not a photo,” he says with a satisfied smile. “I made that.”

I stare at the drawing for a moment, stand up and walk over to the wall. It’s not until I’m standing inches away that I finally see the pencil lines precisely drawn and shaded.

I look over to Delezica who is visibly enjoying witnessing my amazement, enjoying seeing my guard come down as I allow him to continue on with his story. He was a convict. He is an artist — an artist who used his tools to shatter his iron casket.

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PCAP doesn’t always look like that, and founder and University of Michigan English Prof. William Buzz Alexander will be the first one to agree. But it’s these types of stories that keep Buzz pushing forward. It’s people like Delezica that inspire the PCAP organization, enough to not only continue but to keep adding workshops at prisons and low-income high schools throughout the state.

“It’s all too much. This whole thing is too much,” Buzz says, a painfully honest statement. “It runs us ragged. We work very hard. The need is incredible in all the fields that we work in … It’s a lot like a lot of things that are too much — you have to do it, because of what it’s about.”

Today, PCAP workshops exist in more than 30 prisons and juvenile centers and seven Detroit high schools. But just 20 years ago, it all sort of began with a request from Liz Boner, a student of Buzz’s at the time.

She was traveling to Florence Crane Women’s Facility in Coldwater, Mich. once a week to bring University course materials to two women sentenced to life in prison. Boner was in Buzz’s guerilla theater course, a class that performed original theater pieces in public places for groups of people who unknowingly became audiences.

The two lifers she was meeting with at the time were interested in the course, and Buzz and one other student agreed to make the trek to Coldwater every week to meet with them. For nearly a month and a half the five held thoughtful discussions and played theater games, soon realizing that this expression of creative energy could benefit the inmates at large.

Twenty years later, Buzz continues to work with this group, a theater group now known as the Sisters Within Theater Troupe. The women have put on more than 29 original plays.

“When you’re creating your own original work and you’re creating a character, that character gets based on what you know and who you are. And often you're working off your own issues… and it’s on the stage,” Buzz says of his work with The Sisters Within. “When you’re there watching that play, you don’t know all the backgrounds but you’re feeling it among the actors and in the theme of the play. And it’s got a power that you’re not going to have. A professional actor playing somebody else in a powerful story based on a real story is still not that person and you can tell the difference even though it’s brilliantly acted.”

From a five-person workshop, PCAP has grown to an organization that now involves every form of creative expression and has included several thousand University students, community members and incarcerated youth and adults.

Much has changed since Buzz came to the University in 1971. That year, there were three prisons in Michigan housing approximately 3,500 inmates. In 2006, Michigan had 51,000 prisoners. And the United States continues to be the most incarcerating nation — its prisons account for more than one fourth of the convicted in the world. As of 2008, Michigan was one of four states that spent more on corrections than higher education.

More shockingly, America is the only nation that incarcerates youth for life without parole. More than 3,000 adolescents sit behind bars today and will stay there for the rest of their lives.

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When Buzz introduces himself, rather than explaining that he holds a Ph.D from Harvard or that he's a tenured English professor at the University of Michigan, he simply tells people that he works in prisons.

At a high school reunion years ago, one member of his class asked if he ever wore armor while working in the prisons. What sounds like a naive question only expresses the nature of most people’s thoughts of prisoners.

LSA junior Carly Friedman worked last fall in a poetry workshop in a juvenile facility in Detroit. For her parents, it was a far cry from the comfortable Chicago suburbs they were accustomed to.

“They didn’t understand it,” Friedman says of her parents’ reaction. “I explained that it was a program that essentially brings in the creative arts to people who are not given the opportunity to sit down and write or have a theatre workshop and learn what it’s like to stand in front of a group of people and perform. And they heard that part but what they really heard was that I was working in a prison.”

Friedman was enrolled in English 310, a course that largely works as a feeder class into the PCAP organization along with Buzz’s English 319 and 326. The class begins with a day spent together playing theatre games and discussing why students have decided to work in prisons. The students pick partners based on where they want to work and in which medium of art.

Throughout the course of the semester students are challenged with readings that discuss educational policy, segregation and social justice. Most students enrolled in the University know little about Detroit and see it as irrelevant despite its proximity. But the class offers a vastly different perspective that is drawn from the collective experiences of the group.

Buzz relies on the students’ honesty and the dialogue in class to work as the catalyst behind how the class develops and what they learn.

“In our educational experience we’re taught to trust those who are above us, in a sense, who maybe know more than us and take that as the truth, rather than sitting in a lecture and thinking to yourself, ‘Maybe he’s wrong, maybe she’s wrong, maybe this isn’t right, this isn’t how I should be doing it.’ But it’s structured so that we often don’t go beyond someone else’s opinion to formulate our own,” Friedman said, “Everyone is pretty quick to say, ‘That’s all there is to it.’

“It’s much easier to do that than to constantly sit there and think, ‘But wait, what if this isn’t right,’” she continued. “And it’s exhausting to do that. It’s exhausting to constantly form your own opinions. And I think a lot of people just don’t have the energy to do so and they choose to be ignorant. It’s easier to be ignorant and sometimes you’re happier when you’re ignorant. But that doesn’t mean it’s the right way to live your life.”

While the course material stays largely the same from semester to semester — including weekly discussion, small group meetings and journals — the outcome differs based on the students within the class.

“We were there to be laying out our ideas and our opinions and our questions and we couldn’t look to Buzz for all of the answers and we had to look to each other. And that’s what I think life is like, you don’t have someone standing in front of you all the time telling you, ‘This is what it is and here is the answer.’ You have to learn to utilize the people that are sharing experiences that you have. And I think that’s what he taught us was to work together, to try and answer some of our questions and to continue to converse with each other even after the class had ended,” Friedman said of Buzz’s facilitative teaching style.

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Buzz is nearly ten years past retirement age. He knows that he'll eventually need to step down and give the PCAP reigns to someone else. But right now he’s not distracted with talk of that, he has too much to do — between the three classes he teaches, weekly meetings with PCAP members and executives, organizing the annual prisoners’ art show and promoting his recently published memoir, "Is William Martinez Not Our Brother? Twenty Years of the Prison Creative Arts Project."

There will come a day when Buzz will no longer be teaching English classes every week, when he won’t meet with students and prisoners on a weekly basis, when he will be able to enjoy the benefits of retirement.

“Maybe that day will come,” Buzz jokes. "Maybe."

But he hasn’t reached that point yet. He continually reshapes the definition of what it means to risk further and by doing so has engaged the University in one of the most compassionate and reflective opportunities available to students.

For Delezica, PCAP provided a creative space that allowed him to retrieve himself. It instilled in him the importance of contribution to others and within 10 days of his release from prison he was doing just that in his community.

Recently, he has connected a local organization with Sherwin Williams paint. The outreach project refurbishes homes for the homeless and with Delezica’s help, it’s able to paint every single one of those new houses.

“It makes places look better, it makes people feel better about where they live and it helps to raise their whole entire consciousness,” Delezica says.

“You’d be amazed what paint on a house can do for people.”

And for others, paint on a canvas.