“If anything, the need for identity and self-respect are more compelling in the dehumanizing prison environment. Whether an O. Henry writing his short stories in a jail cell or a frightened young inmate writing his family, a prisoner needs a medium for self-expression” (U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, Procunier v. Martinez, 1974).
This self-expression is exactly what the Prison Creative Arts Project, headed by University professors Janie Paul and Buzz Alexander, strives to enhance. Founded in 1990, the PCAP is holding its sixth annual art exhibition, in which prisoners from 35 state prisons submit their work, including but not limited to acrylic, pastel, colored pencil, chalk and watercolor.
Saying that such an art exhibition increases public awareness is an understatement. Where else does one have such an opportunity to tap into the reality of prison life? The source of this artwork is what captures the viewer. Building on this curiosity, PCAP is hosting many panel discussions and speakers throughout the week.
Herschell Turner, a full-time art teacher at Ionia Maximum Facility, gave a few words at the opening reception. Having worked in Ionia for over nine years, Turner says his goal is to keep as many people as busy as possible. His work is far from monotonous. At Level 2 within the prison system, a community of approximately 200 prisoners lives in groups of four in each housing unit. Turner facilitates art classes of about 18 people and has 3 tutors, all wonderful artists, whom are prisoners themselves.
At Level 6, which includes more serious criminals, Turner must teach through bars. Allotted four cells at a time, inmates are temporarily released from their handcuffs while being taught. Along with this method, Turner utilizes corresponding lessons and video lessons. Turner said, “I think this job is heaven for me. The most rewarding thing about it is to see these guys look into themselves for the first time and begin to understand that the Creator has given them all of this to learn. It”s rewarding to see them grow and develop and also challenge others with this.”
Many of the artists exhibited are extremely talented. Former prisoner Billy Brown received attention in the New York Times for his beautiful and intricate patterns, done with blue hues of colored pencil. His work was also shown in 1999 in New York City, at the famous Hooperhouse Gallery.
The art exhibit encompasses a wonderful variety of work, from Native American imagery to tropical rain forests to portraits. A majority of the work is for sale and is individually priced by the artists. Janie Paul, co-curator of the exhibit, comments that the amount of work is growing and is also getting better and better each year. The PCAP hopes to eventually provide scholarships for released prisoners who wish to continue art at other institutions.
The persistence that many of these prisoners develop through their work is truly amazing. Lloyd Stovall, paroled from Muskegon Correctional Facility, carved a chess board out of soap during his incarceration. Due to limited tools, he carved the pieces with a paper clip. Often faced with the lack of materials, prisoners must find unusual ways to produce artwork. The restriction of materials varies from institution to institution, and some of the prisoners” ingenuity is intriguing.
Virgil Williams III, paroled from Hiawatha Correctional Facility, began his sculpturing with cardboard and Elmer”s glue. Where to find the cardboard? Toilet paper boxes, food boxes, basically anything one can get his hands on. Fortunately, PCAP has provided many prisons with a way to order approved art supplies by catalog.
Many former prisoners now consider art a major part of their life. Eric McWethy, paroled form Egeler Correctional Facility said, “The Creative Arts Exhibition is the only thing that helped me to feel human again. Now I can make a picture of the world as I see it, where before I really couldn”t do that.” Stovall said, “I got away from what I truly love. I think art saved me. This program saved me.”
PCAP”s innovative approach on prisoner rehabilitation is unique and refreshing. The program”s success lies in the fact that art really is about human depth and self-discovery.