Prisoner art spans wide spectrum of creativity, draws viewers and buyers



by Cynthia Price
Legal News

Often incarcerated people turn to creativity, including fine arts, to express the conflicts inherent in being locked up – and, sometimes, in having committed a crime.

The University of Michigan’s 24th Annual Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners, held March 20 to April 3 at the Duderstadt Center Gallery in Ann Arbor, demonstrated this with a spectrum of exciting works – everything from a crocheted motorcycle, to pencil drawings, to an amazing sculptured steel robot painting on an easel. Some addressed their situations directly, others took a more oblique approach, and some just seemed to revel in the ability to create.

The art is available for purchase on a first-come first-served basis. On opening day, with sales not beginning until 6:00 p.m., there was already a line of four or five people at 4:00. Last year’s exhibit resulted in half of the over 600 works sold, to the tune of $26,000, with proceeds going directly to the artists.

The exhibit, a project of the Prison Creative Arts Project, was started in 1996 by PCAP’s director, Buzz Alexander, and his wife Janie Paul, a U of M emeritus professor.

That year, the couple traveled around to 16 prisons across Michigan and chose the very best art she saw. The program now visits all of the prisons in the state, and staff makes an attempt to meet with each prisoner/artist in person, according to Program Coordinator Graham Hamilton,

For the 2019 exhibit, there were 2,215 pieces submitted, and 670 chosen for display. The artists are anywhere from 18 to 85 years old, from a variety of backgrounds.

This year, PCAP benefited from a $50,000 grant from the Art for Justice Fund, a sponsored project of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors. PCAP is using the money to spread the stories of incarcerated artists and bring their expertise to events and classrooms, as well as to strengthen programming for people released from prison. PCAP has hired new staff members to carry out the project, including Cozine Welch, Jr., a writer who has been published in PCAP’s Michigan Review of Prisoner Creative Writing. PCAP Director Ashley Lucas, who teaches  two courses with Welch, says, “...[W]e have seen that having a formerly incarcerated person partnering with PCAP faculty and students in a leadership role dramatically deepens both student learning and the trust and engagement of our community partners in prisons and reentry communities.”

One opening-day visitor, former prisoner and U of M honor roll student Justin Alexander Gordon, promoted his own book of poetry, while another talked about a University of Michigan curriculum project which will incorporate hours of video interviews with and about incarcerated people.

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