U-M site of nation's largest prisoner art exhibit
To a large and growing following, the Annual Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners sheds light on the talents to be found behind prison walls and encourages the public to think in more complex terms about the massive incarceration that characterizes the nation and state.
The 12th Annual Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners, presented by the Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP) at U-M, features works by more than 220 men and women serving sentences in state prisons.
The exhibition curator is Buzz Alexander, professor of English and founder of PCAP, along with Janie Paul, professor of art, and Jason Wright, lecturer. The exhibition runs March 27-April 11 at the Duderstadt Center Gallery on North Campus.
More than 3,770 people came to the exhibit last year and more are expected this year, making the annual exhibition not only the largest known display of prisoners' creative work, but likely the most well attended in the United States.
Along with the two-week exhibit, eight educational events exploring a range of prison-related issues will be held.
Beyond presenting compelling works of art created in a variety of media, this year's exhibit also offers a timely venue for a discussion about alternative ways to address overcrowded prisons.
The public debate about state prison funding has grown in urgency with Gov. Jennifer Granholm's proposal in February to help balance the budget by reducing Michigan's prison population.
As Granholm and the Legislature grapple with the budget, organizers of the two-week exhibition believe that seeing first-hand the transformative power of artistic expression could serve as a segue for a prison reform discussion, fueling debate about effective programs that aid prisoners in returning to society with usable skills and self-confidence.
"Among our main goals is to break stereotypes and to foster a dialogue between those who are incarcerated and the community," Alexander says. "Art is a tool to connect and to understand on many levels the hearts and minds of those living in Michigan prisons as well as our own. Prisoners are citizens, we want them to come home as strong individuals and we need to receive them in ways that are welcoming and constructive."
On the most basic human level, the creative works reflect the passion for survival of those incarcerated, waiting for the day when they are free. While the exhibit reflects a range of styles and talent, the strikingly common characteristic is how the prisoners turn to art as way to cope and express themselves.
"Our intent is to give prisoners a choice to express themselves as creative people," says co-curator Paul. "From year to year, we've seen how the exhibit fosters a dialogue about how to treat people more humanely and how prisoners must find ways to build positive identities and self-esteem.
"Art is a basic human need and something that everyone should have access to," she says. "Some people are excluded from having that experience because our educational system doesn't provide it or because they are marginalized in some way."
PCAP, founded in 1990, is part of the Michigan Prisoner Reentry Initiative, which aims to collaborate with community-based organizations to assist prisoners' transition and reintegration in the community.
Through workshops in theater, creative writing, art, dance, music and videoeach culminating in a final performance, reading or exhibitPCAP collaborates with prisoners in the arts and provides a space for them to develop their skills.
Exhibit hours are 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday; and, 12-6 p.m. Sunday and Monday.
For more information on Prison Creative Arts Project and a schedule of events, visit www.prisonarts.org.