Unlocking creativity: Artist perspectives break free in Michigan Prison Art Exhibition

March 13, 2024
Days Gone. Image credit: Aaron Rose


After 20 straight years of participating in the Annual Exhibition of Artists in Michigan Prisons, this will be the first time artist Duane Montney will personally attend the show.

Released from a 32-year prison term this past November, Montney will have three pieces in its 28th edition March 19-April 2.

“I just want to be there to absorb it and enjoy being next to a lot of artist work that I admire,” he said. “Over the years, I have enjoyed the process of coming up with a concept and allowing my creativity to fill in the spaces. The way I could get lost in a piece took me away from prison but also allowed me to show the viewer something about prison or time they might not have thought of.”

This year’s edition will feature 750 works of art by 490 artists in two and three dimensions, including portraits, tattoo imagery, landscapes, fantasy and wildlife, as well as images about incarceration and entirely new visions.

“Every time I see art from this year’s exhibition, I see something new and inspiring,” said Nora Krinitsky, the Prison Creative Arts Project Project director. “Some artists use materials in ways I’ve never seen before and others are making art under some of the most difficult circumstances I can imagine.”

This year, organizers will also emphasize storytelling and artists’ voices in the gallery in an audio tour through written artist statements and by installing the art thematically.

“Our goal is to help visitors connect with the artists who can’t be in the gallery themselves,” Krinitsky said.

Part of the show since 2003, Montney this year will be able to share insights about his work personally. Two of his pieces, he said, are highly personal since they portray his 32-year journey inside Michigan prisons. For example, “The Path” starts in dark charcoal, fades to graphite and ends with paint.

“This piece has too many significant parts and people of me to list,” Montney said. “PCAP’s shows have meant so many things to me at different times. It has always been an avenue to explore the issues prisoners face, the dark stuff and eventually some fun things. I always wanted to give the viewer something to look at and think about.”

Curatorial process

According to organizers, this year’s exhibition stands out due to the increased participation of students throughout the art selection process. PCAP offered a new curation mini-course that required students to immerse themselves in the most critical aspect of the annual exhibition process: engaging with the artists directly and making informed selections of artworks for display at the annual exhibit.

“Through engaging in reflective art-making and writing, the students explored and encountered both their own humanity and that of the artists,” said Emily Chase, PCAP arts programming coordinator.

Another addition was the Exhibition Design Meeting. PCAP’s curatorial team staff and many students who participated in the art selection process this past fall dedicated two full days to a thematic analysis of the 750 art pieces they chose for the exhibition.

“During this time, we immersed ourselves in the collection, allowing overarching themes to naturally surface and sparking enriching discussions about how to display the pieces best,” Chase said. “I hope this will infuse the exhibition space with the authenticity of the artists’ voices.”

Humor was one of the themes PCAP’s staff uncovered during the design meeting, like “Dreaming of a Way Out/Wishful Thinking” by artist Radu. This small watercolor illustration shows the perimeter of a prison. Inside the prison yard, a UFO is beaming prisoners up into outer space and away from thinking, while outside the prison, a unicorn watches.

“I marveled at the use of humor and fun that we saw across facilities this year overall,” Chase said. “Satire can be a way of getting through rough, hopeless or painfully absurd moments. But it can also communicate complex ideas or states of being in a way that is both accessible and clever.”

The exhibition, free to the public, is presented with support from the Michigan Arts and Culture Council. It runs March 19-April 2 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.