ANN ARBOR—Paintbrush in hand, artist Martín Vargas huddled in a corner of the cavernous room at the Michigan Union Courtyard over a large canvas. He wore a baggy yellow sweatshirt splattered with paint, greeting those who approached with a smile.
"Creating art took me out of that place," he said.
Vargas served 45 years in prison for a crime committed when he was 17 years old. While incarcerated, he taught himself to be an artist. It was his therapy. "For as long as it takes me to complete a piece, my environment is psychologically, spiritually, and emotionally stress–free and pleasing," he said.
Vargas painted (and spoke) at the 2022 Art Auction on Saturday, December 3, at the University of Michigan. The auction raised funds to support the 27th Annual Exhibition of Artists in Michigan Prisons which happens next year, from March 21 through April 4.
The auction and the upcoming exhibition are part of the University of Michigan's Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP). This long-running program fosters hidden creativity and talent in Michigan prisoners and showcases that talent to the free world.
During the three-hour auction held on December 3, art created by the incarcerated, formerly incarcerated, PCAP curators, University of Michigan faculty, and local artists was auctioned to the public.
Vargas's piece was the last item auctioned. He painted it live at the event. It depicted one of his famous "pudgies," green chubby figures he invented that are "devoid of racial, ethnic, religious, political, or sexual orientation…universal figures that convey basic human feelings and actions common to us all."
Other featured artists included the formerly incarcerated Kenneth Gourlay. Kenneth contributed an untitled abstract painting that was the event's showcased work. It consisted of numerous black lines, reminiscent of a pile of charred sticks, as from a burnt-out fire, adorned with a single, iridescent sapphire orb, as if to symbolize the endurance of hope, through the flames, shimmering and unextinguished, ready to be stoked again from the ashes.
Gourlay's work was mirrored in centerpieces on some of the event's tables, in sculptures made by Gourlay himself and PCAP Arts Programming Coordinator Sarah Unrath, who crisscrossed the expansive, vaulted room, greeting the attendees.
"Human connection is the strength of our program and continues to awaken some amazing spaces and energy," Unrath said.
Sarah Hebert-Johnson and Marjani Abdur-Rahman hosted the event. Abdur-Rahman also sang Rhianna's "Lift Me Up," with Hebert-Johnson harmonizing.
Abdur-Rahman served eight years at Huron Valley Women's Facility in Ypsilanti, Michigan, where she participated in several PCAP workshops. She will soon earn her bachelor's degree in social work. She said that prison is designed to suppress emotional expression, including joy and laughter, and that incarcerated people rely on the inspiration and encouragement of others to lift them psychologically.
Calvin Green performed on djembe; a West African drum played with bare hands. Calvin is the Vice Mayor Interim for Kalamazoo and a White House Intern for Trauma-Informed Congregations. He said the djembe helps with his dyslexia.
Aaron James, a formerly incarcerated poet, recited one of his characteristically impassioned works.
The auction raised funds to promote and showcase such talent and hard-won insight. PCAP conducts artistic workshops in prisons, encouraging incarcerated individuals to exercise their talents constructively. It provides a creative outlet with their time and a form of self- therapy that contributes to the growth process.
The auction itself produced several spirited bidding battles, pushing the price of some works of art to around $600. Proceeds from both the donations and the art auctioned and sold on Saturday totaled approximately $11,500. About half came from donations and half from auctions and sales.
This was an increase of $9,300 raised last year. More people bid on the art this year (84) than last year (76). Fifty-one pieces of art were auctioned, 8 live and 43 silent, and $307 in gift cards were awarded as prizes donated from local businesses.
Those proceeds will contribute to the $60,000 cost of putting on the Annual Exhibition of Artists in Michigan Prisons. The remainder of the $60,000 cost of the upcoming art exhibition will come from grants, sponsors, and donations. These funds pay for shipping prisoner artwork, professional matting, and reimbursing the formerly incarcerated travel expenses, among other things.
However, all proceeds from the art sold at the upcoming exhibition will go directly to the artists themselves, allowing them to purchase more art supplies and support themselves in prison.
It's expensive to be a prisoner. The state provides most necessities, such as food, shelter, and water, but the prisoners must purchase everything else. This includes soap, toothpaste, coffee, snacks, telephone calls, and art supplies. The cost of those things often far exceeds the average $30 monthly payment for a prison job assignment. This means prisoners either go without or rely on their families and friends to send funds to their prison accounts. The proceeds from the sale of the exhibition’s art allow them to enjoy more than the bare necessities.
For most incarcerated artists, though, it's not about the money. "I paint where I want to be," wrote J. Gostlin, an incarcerated artist. Gostlin donated a painting to the auction entitled "The Last Breath of Day," an acrylic on canvas board that depicts a lakeside cottage behind a colorful garden at sunset, a far cry from his current grey surroundings. For Gostlin and many like him, creating art is how he frees himself from prison.
AUTHOR BIO: Patrick Kinney is a formerly incarcerated author, poet (and sometimes painter). His poetry appears in most editions of PCAP's annual publication, The Michigan Review of Prisoner Creative Writing. Sentenced to life at 16 and ultimately incarcerated for 26 years, Patrick earned an MBA through correspondence, taught himself the law, and is now the Chief of Legal Staff and Chief Paralegal at the Law Offices of David L. Moffitt & Associates. This law firm specializes in criminal defense appeals.