For the next 15 days, prisoners from around Michigan are expressing their desires, debunking stereotypes and showing the realities of life behind bars.
Their stories and artwork will be shared from March 4 to 8 at the eighth annual Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners, displayed in the Media Union on North Campus. The once-local exhibit, co-curated by University English Prof. Buzz Alexander and art Prof. Janie Paul, now features 200 pieces of work from more than 35 prisons and 150 artists.
Alexander said he believes the show, at first a surprising success, has built a reputation among art goers and students for its diversity and quality of work on display. “Some people come out of curiosity, and they are often very surprised,” he said. “They come expecting prisoner art to be very dark, with prison scenes, but what they find is … just a beautiful range of wonderful art. People are usually blown away.”
Often times, Alexander said, viewers come to the show with negative stereotypes about the artists – whether it be with their backgrounds, their talent or their personalities. But Alexander added that looking at the artwork and reading the artists biographies helps dispel those stereotypes, which is an important mission of the exhibit.
“People generally have stereotypes about prisoners, which is that they are all bad people, they all killed someone,” Alexander said. “They are generally disappointed in their stereotypes.”
Art and Design sophomore Mary Paul is taking a class taught by Janie Paul in which students travel to local prisons and help give art workshops to prisoners. She said working with the artists was an eye-opening experience.
“I think there is a lot of media portrayal of these criminals, that they are such terrible people,” Mary Paul said. “In a lot of respects, they are very nice people. Art is a place for them to express who they are.”
She added that she feels the art show will allow students and faculty members who have not had experiences with prisoners to understand more about their lives.
“It really gives people a glimpse into what these artists are thinking. Some works are incredibly intense, and some are really sad and hard to look at,” she said. “It really helps to be able to identify with them on a more human level.”
Former prisoners who have participated in previous years’ shows said that, to them, the purpose of the exhibit is more personal. They credit the art show with giving them something positive to focus on while in prison, as well as being a therapeutic outlet for their anger and frustration.
Detroit resident Lloyd Stoval, a former exhibitor in the prisoners’ art show, says participating in the show helped him turn his life around.
Stoval, who was incarcerated for nine-and-a-half years for larceny, said he felt lost and worthless and had difficulties finding a positive goal to reach for while sitting in prison.
“When you are in prison, you lose a little bit about yourself, you think people don’t care, you’re not worth anything. Then you get to that point where the prisoners accept you and they want you to be in their gangs,” Stoval said. “The prisoners art show gave me an opportunity to say, ‘Look, I’d rather go into the yard and draw then go into the yard and pick a fight.'”
Another former prisoner, Monroe County resident Jason Rios, had been involved with gang activity before his incarceration. The art show, he said, allowed him to communicate the negative aspects and results of gang life to an audience.
“I was taking my experience and trying to help others,” he said of his drawings entered in previous years’ shows. “In prison, you are constantly told what you can do and what you can’t do … doing your art, that’s your freedom. You can do what you want. You see a lot of people drawing nature scenes, or just places they wish they could be at. It’s like a rehabilitative tool.”