Ann Arbor—Martin Vargas has been an artist for about 25 years, has painted hundreds of pieces, but the solo exhibition Painting His Way Home was only the second show he hung. Surrounded by measuring tapes, hanging tools, tying wires and pieces of arts, he was anxious, but full of happiness and enthusiasm.

Together with a curator from The Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP), they measured the room, walls, each painting while chatting and taking pictures with people around the restaurant he was exhibiting. “Do you like art?” he asked one of the servers. “Because art is a big part my life,” he said.

The exhibition featured 13 pieces, a small selection of work he created in prison, where he spent all of his adult life for a crime committed when he was 17. “These are some of my favorites pieces,” he said. “They represent different stages of my life.”

The artist was a juvenile lifer, locked up for over 45 years and was released on February 21st of this year. Vargas is self-taught and started taking art seriously in the mid-nineties. His creations include realistic wildlife, portraits and signature Pudgies - universal figures who reflect emotions common to all humans, regardless of race, religion or cultural background. His mediums include pastel, oil and watercolor.

“Since I could not go to places I would like to go, I painted them,” he said. “This is how I got away of that environment, and this helped keep me sane.”

Although he was locked up during the time he was building up his skills, Martin was fortunate to have a network of supporters in the community who encouraged and helped share his work. PCAP was among these supporters and displayed his work for 23 consecutive years at the Annual Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners.

PCAP’s annual show hosts 600 artworks by more than 500 artists incarcerated in Michigan each year and attracts over 3,600 individual visits. It aims to help incarcerated citizens become artists and brings their work into the public realm in order to humanize prisoners in the eyes of the general public. The project also connects U-M students and members of the community directly to the effect of mass incarceration and the power of art as a sustaining force.

PCAP’s director, Ashley Lucas, said the exhibition shows the humanity of inmates who are too often characterized by the number on their uniform. "We tend to think of prisoners as people who are all defined by the very worst thing they ever did," Lucas said. "We want people to know something else about them, to give a fuller picture of who these people are in their human complexity."

Vargas emphasized that art, and consequently being part of the annual exhibitions, gave him a sense of purpose in life. It also helped him release a lot of negative energy, during the time he was in prison. “At one point I was very chaotic with my way of living, my lifestyle,” he said. “When I started getting into arts, it gave me a reason to do things to prepare me for life in the future.”

His present and future are totally intertwined with art. He has now a studio, in the home he shares with his wife in Grand Ledge, an art business and was recently juried by a group of local artists and craftsmen who embraced him into their community. Since he was released from prison, PCAP has invited him to speak at various events sharing his experience with students and the broader community. In addition to his Ann Arbor exhibit, he had a solo show in Lansing, and has pieces in an exhibit at the Center For Creative Studies in Detroit.

“PCAP has enabled me to sell my art, and meet others who are in positions to show my work at other venues,” he said. “It provides self assurance and increases self esteem that pleases not only me and my family of supporters, built  my parole officer as well. The latter helps reassure the MDOC to ease up on parole restraints.”