Within Michigan’s penitentiaries resides a population of 50,000 — more than the entire student body at the University. Yesterday evening, the Prison Creative Arts Project kicked off two weeks of events dedicated to the incarcerated community with its 10th annual exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners held in the Duderstadt Gallery.

Ken Srdjak
Suzanne Gothard at the annual exhibition of art by Michigan prisoners at the Duderstat Center Art Gallery yesterday.(GLEN GETTY/Daily)

The exhibition will showcase visual, musical, theatrical and written artwork by the prisoners who are confined within the 42 prisons throughout the state of Michigan.

English Prof. Buzz Alexander, founder of PCAP and the co-curator of yesterday’s art exhibition said he feels that PCAP has a greater purpose than just showing exceptional artwork — it is a demonstration of the complexity of the prisoners themselves.

“If you think about it, people have stereotypes about people in prisons. They have stereotypes that (prisoners) are dangerous, without talent; that they are rapists and molesters and that their art is bad art. Our hope is that they’ll see good art and that their vision of prisoners will change,” he said.

PCAP began in 1990 with two prisoners who were taking University courses through a program in which the University brings books and notes to the prisoners. The two prisoners, who were enrolled in the University’s English 319 theater course, wanted to extend their newfound opportunity to create artwork to their entire prison.

It was more of an accident, Alexander said.

“The 2 ‘lifers’ excelled in the course, and then we opened it up to the whole prison. I knew I wanted to go there. We saw the talent and the resistant spirit in the prisons,” he added.

Former prison artists Paul Betts and Pedro Cassada attested to the strength required to formulate artistic works while being “locked up” for nearly 24 hours a day. Betts, who was imprisoned for six years in a penitentiary located in Jackson, won the Penn American Award for his short story, “Flat Top for Cherry Hill,” in 2000.

“Every day when you’re incarcerated you have to give yourself a reason to live. Every day you have to redefine who you are because the world has already defined you. This is one of the few programs that allows for that,” Betts said.

Cassada, who was recently released on Jan. 30, put over 300 hours into his colored-pencil drawing of a Phoenix that was on display at the exhibition.

“I didn’t like the man I had become, and I wanted to change,” Cassada said. “There are only two things you could do (in prison): stay positive or stay negative — there’s no gray area. The gray area is still negative.”

It was at this time, he said, that PCAP rejuvenated him through his artwork. “Art offered me a daily escape from confinement. Everything you see comes from my heart. When you look at this work, don’t just see the pretty colors, try to look at it and see what they were thinking. Look deep into the picture.”

Co-curator and Art and Design Prof. Janie Paul also said she encourages viewers to seek out the personal stories behind the pictures.

Paul said that due to the continuous growth of PCAP, the selection process was harder than ever this year. “(Alexander and I) asked the artists to dig down deep and present something personal,” Paul said. “It brings the issues out because it brings out the creativity. I feel really committed and in solidarity with the artists; it’s made my art more detailed and has influenced me to be more authentic,” she added.

PCAP administrator Suzanne Gothard said she also found a life-altering experience in the prisoners’ ability to transcend their environment and create something beautiful. “I get inspired by these artists who are creating in these conditions; it inspires me to find that need within myself,” Gothard said.

Patricia Caruso, Director of the Department of Corrections for the state of Michigan, said she believes that, whether one is an artist or not, anyone can gain a different perspective about these prisoners through their art. “Those who work in the prisons, those who are imprisoned and taxpayers all have a vested interest in making sure our prisons are safe and secure. PCAP gives people something to live for, to work for, to get out and stay out.”

PCAP is also composed of dedicated students who put in countless hours to ensure that these inmates’ voices are heard throughout the campus community. “PCAP sucks you in,” said RC senior Erin Kaplan, who served on the PCAP planning committee. “I got to meet the artists and to see people who are so marginalized and silenced and see how much talent can exist in a bleak environment. To hear them talk about their own work was moving in itself,” Kaplan said.

Aside from the normal itinerary of workshops at the prisons, the exhibition will include events ranging from panel discussions about the criminalization of youth and the death penalty in the United States, to a night of theater exploring personal struggles in the transition from prison to the outside community.

RC senior Megan Shachman has worked throughout the year to present a forum on the Michigan Battered Women’s Clemency Project, which is included in the exhibition despite the fact that it is not art. The project serves as a support system for incarcerated women who argue self-defense in cases of domestic violence.

Shachman said she regrets that there were not any Clemency Project women artists displaying work yesterday evening and attributes this to the lack of programming in women’s correctional facilities.

“Women are literally being forgotten and left to rot in prison,” she said.

Shachman said she advocates that students interested in public policy and political science help fundraise, review old cases and raise awareness about the project. “We have a responsibility to care about these women. You should care that you are part of a system that fails women,” Shachman said. “All the people we’re talking about have been failed by the incarceration system. We need to see these people as part of the community.”

LSA senior Evan Major said he agrees that the exhibition will promote a more conscious view of our society’s prisons. “The expression is the number one thing I’ll take away. The exhibit is as much a commentary on the prison system as it is on the art,” Major said.

PCAP will be displaying the exhibit at the Duderstadt Center Gallery until Tuesday, April 5. For more information on events scheduled throughout the Exhibition, visit www.prisonsart.org.


— Ryan Glass contributed to this report.


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