U-M’s Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP) offers incarcerated individuals a chance to explore the arts through workshops held in area prisons and juvenile facilities. Facilitated by U-M faculty, students and community members, the workshops cover an array of topics in theater, art, film, creative writing and poetry. The project also sponsors a yearly exhibition of artwork created behind bars. This year’s exhibit is currently underway on U-M’s North Campus in the Duderstadt Center Gallery from March 22 to April 6, 2011.

View the slideshow below to see images of prisoner art, and then read on to learn more about what this exhibition means to the artists.

PCAP was founded by LSA English Professor Buzz Alexander in 1990. He recently detailed the creation of this project in the book, Is William Martinez Not Our Brother? Twenty Years of the Prison Creative Arts Project. The following excerpt is from chapter six.

Excerpt: The Meanings of the Exhibition

For the artists the exhibition means visibility. That we have imagined their creativity and walk into the space where they are warehoused, that we respect and admire them and talk with them about their art and their lives and select what they submit is huge. The public despises them, the prisons humiliate them, they have done damage in their families and communities, and we put their work on the wall in a prestigious university. An important and growing piece of them is acknowledged. Hidden away in prison, they learn that thousands of people will witness their expression of self, their images and ideas. As Nancy Jean King wrote,

One aspect to this exhibit was having the chance to display our work to the community. Not only to share our thoughts, our talents and our dreams, but to say: “This is our bridge to you, and we built it ourselves!” Because, you see, many of us want to strengthen the rungs and come across to the other side. … Expressing ourselves, sharing those expressions with a community we have been separated from, that is why we became involved. It would be such a beautiful thing if we could help to put cracks in the stereotypes and myths about prison and prisoners. If these exhibits serve to bring us and the community closer together, or make the community more receptive to us, what could be more wonderful than that?

For the artists the exhibition means stimulus. Because of it art has proliferated in Michigan prisons. New artists apprentice to old, workshops spring up, the word spreads, artists spend the entire year preparing. When we wrote to the artists asking for unique and heartfelt work, the effect was profound. In a recent evaluation, Doug Hanna talked about how this request affected him and others:

I know how hard it is to be on this side of the fence. … It is sure most of the artists in prison will never get the chance to show anyone what they can do. They are not encouraged to think. It is discouraged more than anyone out there can ever understand. Your exhibition encourages us to think. I thank you for that.

For the artists the exhibition means a new image of oneself, new possibilities. At Camp Branch in 2007 Lessie Brown entered the room. She looked at us. Janie wasn’t there. She said, “Did I do it?” The previous year Janie had pointed out to her that her exquisite sensitivity appeared in isolated fragments and suggested that she extend it and create a whole world in her paintings.  Lessie had taken it to heart. We saw a quantum jump in her work and now we told her she had done it. We selected both of her pieces. She glowed. Later she wrote to us:

I just don’t know how to describe how all this has made me feel. I guess if you consider a woman who felt like she was nothing, who felt she had no potential for anything, and would never be anything, then maybe you can understand just a little, what this has done for me. I now have a talent that I can utilize to support myself, and give people pleasure, at the same time, it is so amazing to me! Then, to incorporate my art with my skills in Graphic Arts, eventually own my own business, and hire displaced women, train the, give them a skill, that they can use to support their children, and hopefully never end up in here, or in a Domestic Violence situation, well, it means the world to me.

…For the artists the exhibition can mean survival. In a letter that helped us secure the Access Grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, Danny Valentine wrote about that first exhibition:

Totally shut off from the outside world, I had no other stimuli than what existed inside the prison walls; as a result, I became a zombie, numb to reality—all hope lost. Today, however, I can honestly say without reservation, that the U of M art exhibit for prisoners has restored my human spirit. Prior to my experience with the U of M, I was doing basic drawings which depicted a prison mentality boasting of criminal concepts (drugs, gang insignia, etc.). That was the audience of what little clientele I had {he is referring to fellow prisoners as the purchasers of these drawings}.

After the first exhibit, the U of M provided the institutions of the participants with a video. The video allowed the artists to see their work on television. That one single element of the whole process caused us to feel worthwhile again. … I personally witnessed the ambiance of restored humanity filling the souls of the other prisoners. Tears of joy welled in my own eyes for the first time in many years. A man crying in prison may not seem like a big deal, but a man in prison whose soul becomes hard and bitter, soon forgets how to cry. I guess that you would have to be here to really know what that is like.

In other communications he has told us that the exhibition has kept him from suicide.

For the artists the exhibition and workshops can mean, F. Mumford writes to us, “a kind of forgiveness.”

My soul was wounded as I went thru the process of police interrogation, arrest, jailing, the court experience and finally imprisonment. The smiles and conversations with art student volunteers act as a balm for my wound. They are all held in high esteem. The letters written to all the artists and particularly to me, made me cry! I feel filled with gratitude and happiness after the show and read them thru and all the other things there in the packet.

…Years ago a student in my film course on U.S. prisons posed a question: “Can someone commit a brutal murder and still create beautiful art? It isn’t a new question, of course, as anyone knows who has struggled with the career of Leni Riefenstahl and other artists who have supported totalitarian regimes. And while the answer is no, in the end the answer is also yes, yes he or she can. A man can kill a woman and chop her body into pieces and still find beautiful landscapes inside, and the landscapes will be beautiful to the viewer. We can’t do anything about that. It is true. There it is. …

…Whether we know what someone has done or not (and usually we don’t know), whether we witness harsh behavior or not, we are in the presence of what is worst in human experience, in the presence of physical, mental, and spiritual agony, in the presence of a child’s scream and of the inner scream of that child grown up, in the presence of the violent results of economic injustice. And, if we are willing to acknowledge it, in the presence of our own capacity to do terrible harm. And because we are also in the presence of the best, the most creative, in human experience, we too, like F. Mumford, experience a kind of forgiveness, which must, of course, be distinguished from being forgiven.

And above all for the artists, and for us, the exhibition means resistance. Janie Paul, concluding her essay describing the conditions under which prison artists work, writes that “making art”

Is a form of resistance to the oppressive conditions of prison life. In resistance of the barrenness of prison, artists create images of beauty, joy, and celebration. In resistance to poverty of resources, there is inventiveness with materials. In resistance of uniformity, there is idiosyncrasy and freshness of vision. In resistance to the hidden devastation and violence of prison, artists depict harsh realities that we need to know about. In resistance to the coldness of prison, artists create images of love and tenderness. And in resistance to invisibility, artists create images of themselves.

Reprinted with permission from Is William Martinez Not Our Brother? Twenty Years of the Prison Creative Arts Project by Buzz Alexandar. University of Michigan Press (September 2010).