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.
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. “It’s a constant reminder, for me, of the fact that I’m in a space where people feel it’s necessary to be precautious or fear that the people I’m about to work with are going to be dangerous. And for me that is really problematic. Because it’s a shift in the way we understand human beings and what it means to have a sense of humanity.”
“Getting to that space where all the women I will be working with are waiting for me, that’s the moment I look forward to,” Adelson added.
That space that Adelson and other students arrive at can vary between facilities. In some cases, it’s a classroom. For theater projects, it can be a stage or a gymnasium or whatever is available. But what remains the same across every workshop is the philosophy behind the program.
“Everyone has equal space in that room,” said LSA senior and English 310 student Emily Caris.
“We are there as facilitators, not teachers,” Adelson said. “This is not about coming in with a lesson plan and being, for the most part, white middle-to-upper-middle class girls/women from the University of Michigan who say, ‘This is what we’re going to learn and this is how you’re going to learn it and you’re going to learn it because it’s important.’ ”
In theater groups, the students play roles; in painting workshops, students share their own work and talk about their own experiences. Together they create a collaborative artistic environment where anyone is free to suggest the direction the workshop takes or the prompts they write on or the scenes they perform.
“That’s the point of PCAP, is that everyone has this creativity,” said LSA junior and English 310 and 319 student Talia Horwitz. “It’s just that a space needs to be created for that to come out in. My creativity definitely comes out through PCAP with the boys in the workshop.”
Alexander and Paul have put on the exhibition for 18 years now. The first exhibit had 72 paintings on display from 50 artists. This year, the PCAP exhibition will host 428 works of art from over 200 artists. All of the pieces are up for sale, the prices being determined by the artists or with help from the curators. Since the artwork, once it leaves the prison, cannot go back inside the prison to be with the artist, PCAP makes sure that the artist has named a family or friend who they would like the art to go to in the event that they cannot sell the piece.
“We’re very on top of making sure this work has a home that the artist wants it to go to because it can’t go back to stay with them,” Adelson said.
PCAP also encourages those who attend the gallery during its two-week display to write in a guest book about their experiences with the art and the exhibit. The comments are then sent back to the artists.
“We hear some of the guys have said, ‘I wait and wait until that packet arrives because I want to see the comments people are leaving,’ and they sleep on it,” Adelson said. “I know guys who keep it under their pillow and sleep on it at night because that’s the world to them reflecting back on something that they did. And for most of these men and women, that kind of validation doesn’t exist. It certainly doesn’t exist inside prison.”
The exhibition, having outgrown its original space at the Rackham gallery, is quickly requiring additional space beyond the confines of the Duderstadt. While PCAP originally started with correctional facilities within a 120-mile radius of Ann Arbor, last year PCAP received a grant to work on expanding to correctional facilities in the upper-part of the Lower Peninsula and the Upper Peninsula that usually don’t have access to PCAP; as always, however, an artist from any institution in Michigan may submit their artwork for the exhibit.
“For me, there’s a palpable energy when everything is up,” Adelson said. “One of my closest friends who was in my workshop when she was still in prisons, who came home a few years ago, she said ‘I can hear their voices. I know what it’s like to be every person on this wall.’ It’s really special. I urge everyone to have that moment. To disconnect from the whole law, prison, crime triangulation … to just come in and look at the work.”