During the past 25 years, the annual exhibition by U-M’s Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP) has grown into one of the largest gallery 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.
The late LSA professor Buzz Alexander founded PCAP some three decades ago to foster original creation in the arts by people in Michigan correctional facilities, juvenile facilities, urban high schools, and other communities statewide. The curator of the 2021 show, artist Bryan Picken, was released from prison in January 2020 after 16 years of incarceration. He also has two pieces in the current gallery: a bird warrior woman and a samurai.
As my colleague Fernanda Pires recently reported, U-M’s Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners celebrated its silver jubilee with a digital gallery this year, a new format necessitated by the ongoing global health crisis.
Every year I am blown away by the artistic expression that comes from this annual event. But I am more inspired by the humanity PCAP represents. As Alexander said in a Q&A with MT in 2015, “When we started this work, we based it on very basic human principles: respect for each individual, belief in their potential, and belief that change is possible. Most importantly, we believed that each person is more than the worst thing they have done. We’ve witnessed proof that these principles work.”
Those of us who have no experience with the Prison Industrial Complex have to rely on a variety of sources — news, movies, TV, books — to shape our perceptions of inmates, prison, and the like. Those impressions tend to be cartoonish caricatures if we are not careful. This annual PCAP exhibition challenges us to see the real person, the real artist, behind those real prison walls.
As accomplished painter and award-winning educator Janie Paul told Michigan Today in 2015: “Making art is a way to continuously redefine ourselves as people. That’s what we do as artists. And these artists are in a place that works to keep them defined — as a person who has committed a crime. So, it’s a hard environment in which to re-imagine oneself. So, for someone to be able to function on this level, redefining themselves through their art — it’s a huge accomplishment. That’s why it’s continued to hook us throughout all these years. And personally, as an artist, it has given me courage.”
(Lead image: “Harbor Jewels” by Oliger Merko)