U-M celebrates 25 years of prison art exhibitions with virtual gallery
As the world marks a full year of the pandemic, the University of Michigan’s Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners celebrates its silver jubilee with a digital gallery, a new format necessitated by the ongoing global health crisis.
The annual exhibition by U-M’s Prison Creative Arts Project has become one of the largest shows by incarcerated artists in the world. It recognizes diversity of both artists and artistic choices with a curated exhibit that features a broad array of artistic media and subject matter.
“Although we are celebrating 25 years of annual exhibitions, this is also very much a year of firsts—the first digital online exhibition, the first year of virtual programs and tours, and the first time that we have been able to offer remote sales,” said Nora Krinitsky, director of the Prison Creative Arts Project. “We will all miss being in the gallery together very much but being able to make the show accessible to anyone in the world is incredibly exciting.”
According to Krinitsky, this is brand new territory for PCAP and is something the organization has wanted to do for a long time.
“I hope that our artists are gratified to know that their work will be seen far beyond the gallery in Ann Arbor this year,” she said. “In that way, even though this is an unusual year, we’re able to serve PCAP’s mission of connecting people impacted by the justice system with those in the free world more than ever before.”
Graham Hamilton, PCAP’s arts programming coordinator, said the team of curators, which includes U-M students, staff, faculty, community members and local artists, considered some 2,500 pieces of original artwork from artists in every single correctional facility in the state of Michigan. The committee chose to curate about 830 pieces.
“It was an extraordinary year, although it was some time ago that we visited,” Hamilton said. “It is our largest exhibit ever in the history of the show. It includes over 600 artists. So for us, that’s a big group of artists to work with, and we feel very privileged for that.”
Curators Charlie Michaels and Alyssa Baginski led the effort to categorize the artwork into search terms for the digital exhibits. The audience will be able to browse through art with a particular theme in mind. The categories include a page with female artists only, another with all abstract work and others showcasing first-time artists and portraits.
One piece of art can pop up in several different sections of the website, which gives viewers a different way to approach the art this year, the curators said.
“Every year before the 25th, people have come into the gallery, a physical space, where they’ve seen the art up on the walls. That’s a really powerful thing that we missed with the quarantine,” said PCAP curator and recent U-M graduate Caleb Foerg. “One of the ways that we’re going to kind of emulate that is to have a front wall in the gallery on the website. It’ll be our featured page and then viewers can take a tour. It won’t be quite like a walkthrough but it’s very close to it.”
Artwork sales appointments will be available March 17-31. Visitors can book sales appointments on the exhibit website. Sales will be made by phone, and all artwork will be shipped to customers. Artists set their own prices and receive 100% of net sales revenue.
“One thing we are really excited about with this digital version of the exhibit is that we are able to expand artwork sales to anyone in the U.S., not just those who can make it to Ann Arbor,” said PCAP associate director Vanessa Mayesky. “Typically, visitors purchase about half of the pieces offered for sale. My secret hope is we can sell it all this year.
“Many PCAP artists rely on sales revenue to purchase art supplies as well as things they need for daily living. I would love to send our biggest sales check ever to artists’ prisoner accounts this year.”
Released in January 2020 after 16 years of incarceration, artist Bryan Picken is debuting as a PCAP curator. He also has two pieces in the show: a bird warrior woman and a samurai.
“This is my first year on this side curating the show,” he said. “Getting to see all of the pieces in person is a much bigger experience than I thought it was going to be.”
“It was fun to create the samurai. I had a picture of the helmet and just really liked the way the light played against it. It was fascinating to me so I needed to paint it. Once I did, I changed a few things on it and ended up adding others until I thought the painting was complete.”
Artists cherish their art materials and find inventive new ways to work with them. With only different brands of gel pens, Robert Schoonover created “Howl”, using each pen’s slight variation in the violet spectrum to create a richly textured work.
“The sad thing is Robert passed away of COVID this year, so this is an example of an artist who we have visited with and spent time with for years,” Hamilton said. “I believe he worked on this piece when he was on a death vigil at the Egeler Center [correctional facility] for hospice. I think that the theme of this one comes out of his time and reflection working there.”
“Art gives us a means to show we have other talents and abilities. That we’re not just the numbers on our backs,” said Jason H., an incarcerated artist. “We’re more than the mistakes that brought us here. Art gives us a really expressive way to show who we are and not just what we’ve done.”
The exhibit will run virtually March 16-31 and includes a full calendar of online events and opportunities for gallery visitors to share their responses with exhibit artists.