Prison art: U-M features creative works of prisoners across Michigan
The University of Michigan Prison Creative Arts Project will unveil its 27th annual Exhibition of Artists in Michigan Prisons, one of the world’s largest shows of its kind.
This year’s edition, which runs March 21-April 4, will feature 645 pieces that will line U-M’s Duderstadt Gallery walls with the works of 360 artists from all 25 prisons in the state. Visitors will find a wide variety of works.
The artists worked all year to create a variety of artwork, from painting (any media), collage and drawing to jewelry, metalwork, sculpture and woodworking, in collaboration with PCAP facilitators and curators.
From Kinross Correctional Facility, artist Chris Levitt created “The Weight of Time,” which depicts a man seemingly crawling on the ground.
“I wanted to paint the figure in a way where it is not clear if he will get back up,” Levitt said. “I often feel like I’m not able to get back up and continue on.”
Artist Christopher Stark, known as BEE, painted the “State of Mind,” which features the words “You don’t have to be in prison…to be inside a prison.”
“Some people are already in prison, and they will never step foot inside a prison,” he said about his juxtaposition-themed painting.
From October to January, 18 U-M students and curators attended 25 trips to select the artwork. During the art selection process, they requested to talk directly with the incarcerated artists, analyze their pieces, give them feedback and choose which works will be displayed, considering the audience, budget and gallery space.
“Art selection trips are a key component of PCAP’s mission of putting human connection at the center of what we do,” said Emily Chase, PCAP arts programming coordinator. “In the moments when PCAP volunteers are talking to artists who are incarcerated about their art, no one is a prisoner or student, or young or old, or skilled or unskilled. They are all just people–people sharing interests, thoughts, jokes and opinions.”
For Chase, although art is the end game of the visit, the connection is the focus of the conversation.
“These authentic human connections change the lives of all participants and result in an art exhibit that communicates the worth of all humanity,” she said.
Social work graduate student Sarah Hebert-Johnson participated in six selection trips to help choose the unique artworks for the annual show.
“Engaging with incarcerated artists challenges the dominant narrative of punishment,” she said. “The deep conversations with talented people make me rethink society.”
After her first selection trip, such liberation awareness encouraged Suzy Moffat to add art and design to her anthropology major. She’s visited 13 facilities this year.
“My thinking has become less cut and dry, more understanding and empathetic,” she said. “Art is already a medium for that. Without going in and talking (to the artists), I would not have added art and design.”
For artist Albert Krakosky III, from Marquette, besides fun, making art is a form of meditation. He created a painting called “A Patient Man.”
“I love seeing a piece come together,” he said. “I feel calm and at peace, excited to see how my five siblings, parents, and relatives will react to my artwork.”
PCAP community engagement specialist Sarah Unrath works directly with current and formerly incarcerated artists.
“It gives me goosebumps walking in the gallery, that precious arena that exudes the whole gamut of emotions of what it means to be human,” she said. “The interactions are authentic. It’s something you just can’t shake.
“Whether through revelations during workshops and undergraduate courses, the powerful experiences of art selection trips, or the radical community of Linkage, PCAP seeps into the fibers of your being and changes the way you do life.”
Art prices vary and all proceeds go directly to the artists, minus necessary taxes and fees.
The exhibition, free to the public, is presented with support from the Michigan Arts and Culture Council. It runs March 21-April 4 at the Duderstadt Gallery, 2281 Bonisteel Boulevard on U-M’s North Campus in Ann Arbor. Gallery hours are noon-6 p.m. Sunday and Monday; 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.
An opening celebration reception begins at 5 p.m., with the ceremony starting at 6:30 p.m. March 21. It features speakers from U-M and the Michigan Department of Corrections and highlights artists from previous exhibitions with exhibition co-founder Janie Paul.
Written in collaboration with Aaron James, a PCAP Linkage Community Journalism Initiative member.