In partnership with UK, U-M prison artists debut exhibit at the summer fair

June 14, 2022
Coventry Biennial. The Herbert Art Gallery Museum.
Coventry Biennial. The Herbert Art Gallery Museum.

A group of artists from the University of Michigan Prison Creative Arts Project and incarcerated artists from the United Kingdom will present their artworks in the exhibit “We Bear” at the Ann Arbor Art Fair July 21-23.

During the COVID pandemic lockdown, 31 people isolated in U.K. and U.S. prisons produced artworks exploring personal experiences of incarceration. Thirteen artists are in Michigan facilities.

Artist Faye Claridge sent each participant a letter inviting them to create new artworks inspired by themes around the Warwickshire symbol of the chained bear. She paired two folk art paintings from the two countries, showing different treatment of captive bears. 

The artworks were all made in the middle of the global pandemic when people in prison were experiencing lockdowns of 23 hours a day in cells, with no access to common areas, education spaces or materials. Visits were not allowed as well.  

“The artworks were made remotely in the most difficult of circumstances and powerfully communicate a range of experiences of being incarcerated,” Claridge said.

This is the international debut of We Bear US. It was created for a one-off show in the U.K. with Coventry Biennial and attracted about 52,000 visitors. Due to audiences’ feedback and engagement, Arts Council England extended the project support, allowing the show to travel to Michigan and be showcased at the annual art fair in Ann Arbor.

“It can be hard to imagine now, as major events like the Ann Arbor Art Fairs resume their pre-pandemic schedules, the incredible isolation in which the artists were working,” said PCAP associate director Vanessa Mayesky. “We Bear created an opportunity for connection during COVID outbreak lockdowns. Incarcerated people were separated from their loved ones and the outside world more than ever before.”

Through the exhibit, artists reached out beyond quarantine to share their work with an international audience and give their family and friends something to celebrate, Mayesky said.

“What struck me when I reviewed photos of the work was the variety in artists’ responses. No one piece is like another,” she said. “One thing common to all is the artists’ thoughtful consideration of the subject. There is no slapdash response. These are each well-thought-out pieces.”

Daryl Rattew is one of the Michigan artists.

“I hope this can give a glimpse into the creative minds and talent that reside in prisons and impart some insight into the effects of mass incarceration on our populations,” he said. 

Other PCAP artists representing Michigan are Parker Ayers, Susan Brown, John Gaik IV, Samuel Hendley, Jacob Mann, Destrey McCoy, Duane Montney, Theo Moss, Alvin Smith, Serge Tkachenko, Amber Wilson and Andy Wynkoop.