Imagine it’s late at night and you’re having trouble finishing a charcoal drawing without disturbing your roommate, who sleeps only a few feet away from you.
Now imagine your roommate is your cellmate, and that drawing is your only way to escape the pressures of prison life. Work arising out of these circumstances like these is on display through March 29 at the annual Prison Creative Arts Project exhibition at the Duderstadt Center, a showcase of artwork by prisoners from 44 of Michigan’s 52 prisons.
PCAP has put on 11 shows since 1996, when University English Prof. Buzz Alexander founded the project. The show, which he co-curated with Art and Design Associate Prof. Janice Paul, has grown exponentially since then. Last year, 303 works were presented from 188 artists, and this year there are 320 works by 247 artists. The artwork ranges from meticulous pen-and-ink drawings and splashy acrylic paintings to photorealistic colored-pencil drawings. Nearly all are for sale.
The show’s content is equally varied, but patterns emerge: familial love, natural beauty and, inescapably, the experience of life in prison. Former prison artist Martin Scott considered a wall of works the exhibit dominated by this theme. “Prison is a mental experience as well as a physical one, but it’s more a spiritual experience. Black or white, it makes no difference,” he said.
Scott, who was incarcerated for more than 30 years in a Michigan prison, was joined by two other former inmates in a discussion on Sunday about the creation of art in prisons and the project’s role in supporting prison artists. He spoke of the segregation he imposed upon himself to avoid the resentment of other inmates who recognized his art as a connection to the outside world.
“These artists are creating their own happiness or well-being, brightness, vividness,” Paul said.
Jerry Moore, another former prison artist, spoke passionately about one wall of paintings on display, identifying how the prison experience is evident in all of them.
“You juxtapose these beautiful landscapes, these buildings that are designed to empower you with buildings designed to destroy you. That’s how I felt in prison,” he said.
The Project conducts workshops in theater, writing and visual art in a few state and juvenile prisons and in Detroit-area high schools. The vast majority of the featured artists are self-taught and were not provided with either instruction or materials. This is perhaps the most revelatory aspect of the show – the value of the works doesn’t lie solely in their context or emotional expressiveness. The works are of high technical quality and some exhibit a familiarity with canonical artists such as Van Gogh and Georges de la Tour.
The visitor may be taken aback by scenes of natural beauty and studied paintings of woodland creatures, wondering how such idyllic images present themselves to inmates. But Paul thinks this line of thought can lead to another, more fruitful inquiry: “I’d rather have people question themselves than the artist – ‘What’s wrong with me that I think this is surprising?”
The acrylic painting “Tell the Truth Ladies, Who’s Smoking in My House?” by an artist called Pasha #72 is a disarming combination of technical prowess and light subject matter. The large painting shows a view of a festive get-together from the floor, where a limp cigarette smolders. Pasha’s manipulation of the acrylic gives a shellacked effect that amplifies the elaborate garishness of the scene.
The former inmates at the discussion Tuesday stressed the importance of supporting inmate artists when they get out so that they become artists, not just prison artists. Scott sees a link between creating art in prison and learning to take responsibility, which can keep a former inmate from going back in.
“Artists have learned that because it takes time to sit down and decide what you want to draw. I believe that’s the process inmates need when they get out,” he said.
Prison Creative Arts Project
Now through March 29
10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday 12 p.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday and Monday
At the Duderstadt Center