One in 100 adults are incarcerated in the United States. This number may speak to the prevalence of crime and perhaps even the resources that should be allocated to forms of crime prevention. But it doesn’t tell us anything about the individuals that make up this statistic. The Prison Creative Arts Project, a University organization aiming to use art as a means to generate an understanding of those imprisoned, does just this.
The project’s annual art exhibition, now in its 13th year, is running until April 9 in the Duderstadt Center Gallery on North Campus.
PCAP was founded in 1990 by English professor William “Buzz” Alexander, who is also co-curator of the exhibit. Since its inception, the program’s members and supporters have grown enormously.
The art exhibit wasn’t established until 1995, and its number of pieces and artists continue to grow. This year features artwork from over 40 Michigan prisons. Three hundred eighty-nine pieces by 233 artists create a kaleidoscopic landscape of thought and creativity throughout the gallery.
Although some prisoners were artists before their incarceration, most have had no formal training. The art not only varies in form, but in subject matter as well. Sketches, paintings and drawings of landscapes, nature and animals give intimate visions of a life imagined outside of prison bars. Images of childhood, human relationships and shared culture become portraits of past experience, and artwork containing political and religious statements testify to the process of human suffering.
“You can’t think the same way anymore,” Alexander said, addressing how this art challenges preconceived notions of prisoners and prison life. “It could mean that there is somewhat more receptivity to prisoners who come home, and somewhat more willingness to advocate for them in terms of their health care, their rights to have phone calls from family members and the rights of kids who were incarcerated at age 14.”
Perhaps knowing that the artists are prisoners isn’t necessary, but once we do, our understanding of the exhibit changes. The artwork is evidence of the humanity of people who have committed unthinkable crimes.
An artist with the initials F.S.B., whose painting called “Global Warming” appears in the exhibit, writes in his artist statement, “I find psychological escape when releasing my imagination via my art/drawing ability.”
Indeed, the exhibit is a valid form of self-expression as it becomes a mechanism for survival in a time of confinement. A prisoner’s journey toward rediscovery of his voice is reached by escape through art. “The art represents a resistance to that traumatic situation. If you can create something beautiful you have said ‘I am not going to succumb,’ ” Alexander said.
As boundaries of the term “convict” are stretched, alienation caused by the metal bars separating the individuals standing behind them from the world is lessened. Art is an unconventional yet effective approach to understanding imprisonment. And if our connection with the prisoner is not discovering self-recognition in the pieces that engage us, then it’s a common realization of the necessity of art in any circumstance – behind bars or outside of them.
Prison Creative Arts Project
Through April 9
At the Duderstadt Center Gallery
Other Upcoming Project Events
Wednesday, April 2: “Doin’ Time: Through the Visiting Glass” 7:30 p.m., Performance Network, 120 E. Huron Street, Tickets: $10, $8 with student ID – Performance artist Ashley Lucas presents a compilation of letters, monologues, video clips in a multimedia performance on families of the incarcerated
Friday, April 4: “Ashley Lucas at the Detroit YMCA” 7:00 p.m., Boll Family YMCA, 1401 Broadway, Detroit – Ashley Lucas gives an encore presentation in conjunction with an exhibit of 50 pieces of artwork on display in lobby of YMCA.
Saturday, April 5: “Staying Connected: Families of the Incarcerated with Ashley Lucas” 1:00 p.m., Michigan Union, Wolverine Room, 502 S. State St. – Discussion facilitated by Ashley Lucas on experiences and impact of having an incarcerated family member or friend
Sunday, April 6: “Acts of Art” 4 p.m., Cheseborough Auditorium (behind Duderstadt Center Gallery), 2281 Bonisteel Blvd. – PCAP and Michigan Television present premiere screening of “Acts of Art,” a documentary on art inside Michigan prisons. Followed by discussion panel with artists.