By Laurie Wechter / WLAA
The University of Michigan’s Residential College is celebrating the Prisoner Creative Arts Project’s (PCAP) 25th annual Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners. Due to COVID-19, it is being held online with excellent virtual tours. The exhibition is something positive at a time when we are searching for reasons to be optimistic.
“This year there are many new artists and artists who have exhibited for a few years and are achieving new levels of excellence. It is a continuous process that keeps the exhibit fresh and exciting,” says senior curator Janie Paul, who started the annual exhibition in 1996 with her husband and PCAP co-founder, Buzz Alexander.
The exhibition features great diversity in materials and subject matter. About 40 University of Michigan volunteers, led by Graham Hamilton, PCAP’s Arts Programming Coordinator, drove 3,800 miles to 26 prisons in the state in search of the best works of art created by prisoners. When selecting pieces for the show, these travelers looked for originality based on artistic vision.
As an artist and a social worker who worked 10 years inside prison environments, I have been aware of this program for many years and some of the best contemporary artists I have seen have been prisoners.
After viewing approximately 500 slides for this show, I am bedazzled, as ever, by the talent shown. Certain themes arise from the many depictions of home, open land and fantasy landscapes. They also surface in the great abundance of ferocious animals, skeletons, self-portraits with organs (particularly hearts issuing from their bodies), faces with a falling tear, devils, Jesus on the cross and voluptuous women and men.
Literally or more unconsciously, many pieces reflect dreams of peace, privacy, purity and freedom. Violent images reveal feelings of impotence and helplessness, but also beauty and freedom. Also common to many pieces is the juxtaposition of poor choices made in the past and opportunities for change in the future, representations of heaven and hell at war within the artist.
These themes are universal. At different times we are haunted by our own demons, privy to our goodness, feel we are helpless, deal with hard choices, know regret and feel like a victim. Prison artists have a lot of time to look at their lives and to portray what they learn and feel. These self-revelations can in some way speak to anyone.
The 25th Annual Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners is revelatory, powerful and meaningful to both the community at large and the incarcerated people who make these amazing pieces of art. Creating art transforms the artist not only through the making of beautiful works, but through a sense of self that can emerge through the thought, focus and soul-searching that making art demands. The LINK