Few exhibits are as immediately provocative as the Twelfth Annual Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners, sponsored by the Prisoner Creative Arts Project, now running at the Duderstadt Center Gallery through April 11. If walking through a gallery of art made by criminals and former criminals is unnerving, then so might the knowledge that some of the artists could be standing next to you.

Drew Philp
Washtenaw Community College student Kristina Knopic
Drew Philp
RC junior and organizer Mihal Ansik
Drew Philp
“Back 40” by L. Davis

Opening night at the Center Gallery was a claustrophobic affair. People crowded together, body heat rose, air circulation was low and the walls had hardly a square inch of white space. The media and content were equally frenzied: charcoal, pencil, watercolor, fantastical landscapes, abstracted portraits and nature scenes. Despite the heat and confusion, the experience was break from the norm. Usually exhibits are driven by content, time period or medium. At the Center Gallery, there is little noticeable cohesion, and that’s actually a good thing.

The work is unified by the obvious: the artists are prisoners. With many of the works near professional quality, the first question to rise is should it matter who the artists are. Although art should ultimately speak for itself regardless of who the artist is, co-curators Jane Paul, an assistant Art and Design professor, and LSA Prof. Jason Wright believe the rehabilitative power of expression for incarcerated people is an important foundation for PCAP and the exhibit. The inmates are speaking to the viewer through art, not a phone and a glass window, effectively shedding light on their humanity, something society and the penal system tend to ignore. There are straight-forward depictions of cells, cage motifs and chains next to works referencing Hieronymus Bosch, French portraiture and Giocometti, modernist abstractions next to simple Americana. For Emily Harris, program coordinator and LSA lecturer, the exhibit is “a place to for people to challenger their stereotypes about prisoners.”

The exhibited art comes from 42 of Michigan’s 52 prisons, a testament to PCAP’s burgeoning momentum. The group runs inmate workshops in art, theater, creative writing and film. The works on display sell anywhere from $30 to $450, the money going either to the inmates or to PCAP if they so choose.

Gordon Granger became interested in painting while in prison. His pastoral rendering of a lake with an inmate fishing hangs on one of the inner walls, with some his friends’ work nearby. He doesn’t know exactly what the future holds, but he’s considering earning his BFA at Wayne State or the University. He was clearly in high spirits, pointing out his friends and explaining their influences. If walking through an exhibit of prisoner art is unsettling, seeing your art as a free man must be positively uplifting – and you’d think it’d be difficult for such an exhibit to appeal to a college crowd. But if the opening’s high numbers are any evidence, it does and will continue to for a long time.

Prisoner Creative Arts Project
Through April 11

At the Duderstadt Center Gallery

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