When walking into the 10th annual exhibition from the Prison Creative Arts Project, the featured artworks’ vivid imagery and sweeping tomes completely enthrall visitors. The overriding theme might seem to be the isolation and seclusion of prisons, but the works span numerous genres and mediums; one featured painting shows a brooding African-American man draped in an American flag, apparently bound by it, while another artist renders his works entirely on matchbooks, creating impeccably detailed pictures with a pen through a unique artistic effect called “pointillism.”
Despite diverse methodologies and presentations, a common thread connects all the works featured: The artists are all incarcerated adults who create their works entirely inside of Michigan’s prisons.
The art exhibition, which has grown from 77 works by 50 prisoners in 16 prisons when it began in 1996 to 300 works by 200 artists in 42 of Michigan’s 52 prisons today, is displayed annually through the efforts of PCAP. The project began in 1990 with the advent of a theater workshop at a prison in Coldwater, after a University student enrolled in English Prof. Buzz Alexander’s English 319 course made contact with two women in the facility. The women, who were serving life sentences, expressed interest in the course as well.
Alexander, who founded PCAP and now serves as curator with Art and Design Prof. Janie Paul, frequently made the 90 minute trip to Coldwater along with several others, and the project grew from there. “We got to work with amazing human begins who were very talented and challenged us,” Alexander said. “We just kept going, and found out that we could call other facilities and say ‘we have this to offer to you,’ and most of them would embrace it.”
Those working with PCAP are mostly volunteers recruited from Alexander’s English 310 and 319 courses and Paul’s Art 454, along with two paid employees funded through grants and donations. Through hands-on interaction, the group seeks to bring a unique element to the prisoners’ lives. “We (believe) people have a universal right to grow, no matter what they’ve done or what’s happened to them,” Alexander said. Most proceeds from the show benefit the artists’ continued efforts, providing them with any supplies possible to enhance their limited resources. “(When the prisoners are released), they are armed with something we have given them, which is a trust in their own creativity and ability to work with others,” Alexander said.
The exhibition also aims to dispel stereotypes about the prisoners. Alexander said that the public often regards them untalented and subhuman; however, when people view the gallery, “it’s just a huge range of color, and portraits, and fantasies, and landscapes and prison themes and it’s very, very rich. People can’t think in terms of those stereotypes anymore.”
Because the project is in its 10th year and there are now so many entries, an especially powerful collection is on display at this year’s exhibition, Rackham student and PCAP intern/volunteer Emily Harris said. “(Since) we don’t have a huge space, we’ve had to request that the artists be more original, work harder and dig deeper in themselves,” Harris said. As a result, she added, “(The work is) more personal … It’s more intense.”
Tomorrow’s closing reception, which follows a week of special events in conjunction with the exhibition, will provide visitors with an opportunity to meet purchasers of the art and families of the incarcerated artists. “It’s often very moving to see the families there, looking around the gallery,” Alexander said.
The reception is also a chance for visitors to reflect on the larger implications and impact of the show, which Alexander believes to be PCAP’s central mission. “This (show) is recognition that we’ve incarcerated so many people … This is about the country we live in; it’s about social and economic justice.” Ultimately, he said, “This is work that matters because of all the human beings affected.”