Prisoner art spans wide spectrum of creativity


By Cynthia Price
Legal News

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, presented a spectrum of creative works that explored the conflicts inherent in being incarcerated. The exhibit included artwork from a crocheted motorcycle to pencil drawings to a sculptured steel robot painting on an easel.

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

The art is available for purchase on a first-come first-served basis. At the grand opening, with sales not beginning until 6 p.m., there was already a line of four or five interested buyers by 4 p.m. Last year’s exhibit resulted in half of the more than 600 featured works being sold to the tune of $26,000, with proceeds going directly to the artists.

The exhibit, a product 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.

In its inaugural year, the couple traveled to 16 prisons throughout Michigan to select the best artwork they encountered. 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 range in age from 18 to 85 years old and are from a variety of backgrounds. Some of the artists have had work in every one of the 24 exhibits.

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 who are in reentry programs. Programming takes place in all of the prisons around the state, at the Washtenaw Prisoner Reentry Program in Ann Arbor, and in several youth detention and treatment centers in Southeast Michigan.

PCAP has been able to hire 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, states, “...[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.”

Welch said in a recent statement, “To be able to share and show the real worth of and validity of my experiential and self-taught education in a scholastic environment, and to have the process be one of reciprocity between both the students I teach and the staff members I work with, is one of the most beautiful aspects of my involvement with PCAP and the University as a whole.”

Lucas says that she and the staff were delighted with this year’s viewer turnout, and with the amount of art sold. She explained that the way many of the artists afford to continue creating, in an environment with limited resources, is through reusing the proceeds to buy materials.

The visual arts are only one aspect of the program, which also includes theater (Lucas’s specialty), writing, dance, photography, and music. Staff and students hold weekly workshops in the prisons (and also with re-entering citizens), but the visual arts workshops only take place in four prisons around the state.

Community members are welcome to join the student club, whose current president is Hannah Agnew. The club is composed mainly of students who have taken all the available courses in PCAP but want to remain involved.

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