STAFF FROM THE Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP) along with professors, students, volunteers, and curators from around the state, have been going on art selection trips into Michigan’s Department Of Corrections (MDOC) prisons for 28 years. Why? These trips are carried out primarily to select artwork from artists for exhibition and sale at the UM in Ann Arbor. Although these trips have multiple purposes, some of the most important to me are:
- to engage with the hundreds of artists inside these chaotic places, who anxiously wait to see if their work will be chosen for the Annual Exhibition of Artists in Michigan Prisons
- to celebrate and support these artists, who produce from 600 to 900 pieces of two and three-dimensional art work each year.
I AM A FORMERLY incarcerated artist who experienced PCAP’s art selection trips since 1996 and am now an art curator with them. As a result of over 28 years of participation, I have experienced art selection trips from both sides of the fence. These trips are monumental tasks for the people out here; and, though not as complicated for artists inside, there are still numerous challenging hurdles to overcome in there as well. I would like to guide you through them in as clear a way as I can, but to do this I have to tell this story in two sections. In this first part, I will describe how the process works from behind the walls and, afterward, I will share my views based on art selection trips I’ve taken out here. They are both completely different journeys that take all year to complete and all for the same goal, to create, select, exhibit, and sell artwork!
DURING THE SECOND half of my imprisonment, my job as an art tutor at Ionia Correctional Facility (ICF) gave me privileges that not many artists inside have. A reason was that ICF had the only art studio in Michigan’s prison system, with a real artist from Grand Rapids coming in to teach five days a week. I learned a lot from Mr. Herschell Turner, a fabulous pastel artist who, after we worked together for a few months, allowed me to work in the studio when nobody else was using it. This privilege was a freedom that some prisoners and guards looked at with suspicion, but one I never took for granted. Working on my own creations, alone and with little distractions, enabled me to focus more deeply on my art and I became a better artist as a result. Holding this position for almost two decades gave me a few perks. I was allowed to store art supplies there, learn to cut mats for all the 2-dimensional artwork produced at ICF, and hear many conversations among veteran and aspiring artists alike; a lot of teaching went on in that studio.
THERE’S ALWAYS a time of year inside that’s filled with excitement and high energy, and I don’t mean Christmas - that’s the saddest time of year. I’m talking about the arrival of hundreds of PCAP letters with a call for art. Suddenly there’s animated discussions about what one is, or will be doing for “the show”. Lots of art talk is heard daily in the yard, the chow hall, or anywhere that two or more artists congregate. Younger or newly encouraged artists engage in positively charged chats that run the gamut of emotions, including but not limited to frustration at having to wait months before getting necessary art supplies, high-spirited enthusiasm for having a piece that is “finally finished”, to fears as well, about a completed piece. It’s sad to say this but I’ve seen and have been victim to malicious sabotage of art by a very low percentage of envious prisoners and guards. They intentionally destroy a project or throw away much-needed art supplies. Rather than lift us up with motivational words, these antisocials body-slam us because they don’t like that we have something to feel good about rather than wallowing in the muck of isolation, misery, and rejection as they do. I believe it’s mostly anger at themselves causing them to resent our successes, especially when we’re recognized by such a prestigious body as the University of Michigan.
HOWEVER, as art selection trips get closer, artístas become more sociable about their art projects and more unaffected by their surroundings, which actually creates a safer environment. This is a very positive time for creating art. During the last few weeks before “the UM '' comes into the prisons artists are discussing, practicing, or producing art. The rush of positive and creative energy is obvious as they zero in on finishing the work they're planning to show. Helpful critiquing or playful teasing about somebody’s art is a given during this time, as is bartering or begging for “blue paint”, “glue” or last-minute materials to finish a piece. A framework of community among artists does exist within the controlled and chaotic environment of the MDOC. However, because artists are scattered throughout the state, it is not as well structured as it could be. I believe the MDOC should seriously consider reserving one of its many facilities strictly to house the hundreds of artists around the state. Men’s and women’s facilities in Ann Arbor were about a quarter of a mile apart in the 1980’s so it is not an unrealistic possibility; and, if you take into account the fifteen percent from sales of art at Annual PCAP exhibits, plus those from year-round sales at a centralized location, the MDOC would benefit substantially with such a move.
A FEW DAYS BEFORE the selection crew came to ICF there were always one or two baby butterflies waking up in my stomach; a touch of anxiety and doubt would start crawling around in my brain, and my nerves would strain just a bit. After years of going through these visits, I knew exactly what would take place, nonetheless, before every one of these trips I still needed convincing that my work was good and different from anything I or anyone else had created. Breathing…slow…and deep, was a mantra I learned a long time ago when anxiety surfaced, but it never quite worked during art selection time.
ON THE DAY BEFORE, I cleaned and prepared the space where our work would be displayed and the studio was transformed into a gallery! Still, restless doubt about my having missed something is always on my mind, and sleep is never easy. On this day too, Studio Director, Mr. Herschell Turner makes sure that every participating artist is placed on call for the following day. If someone’s name is not on the callout list then they don’t get a pass to be in the studio.
ON THE DAY OF, I rush around one last time before the art selection crew comes in. Making sure that artwork is properly displayed and labels with artists' names, media, price, and size are shown with the right pieces; snacks and refreshments are set out; and something nice was playing on the audio system (someone’s tape-player). The artists walk into the studio in twos and threes, some hesitantly, others anxious. It’s game day. We’ve waited a year for this and, when they see their work displayed in the studio-turned-art gallery, their proud and smiling faces are always an amazing sight to see. Waiting for Herschell to escort the guests from the control center, across the yard, and into the studio, artists check out everybody’s completed work. There are friendly laughs and conversation all around and when someone yells “Here they come!” and we see them walking down the hallway, everyone puts their game face on. Strained smiles are plastered on each face while beneath the surface, nerves on crack play havoc. You would have to experience this tension to believe it.
I’M NOT SURE IF art selection crews feel this tension but they’ve always encouraged communication with their genuine friendly and positive energy. In a very short time, anxiety melts away and the room is filled with animated conversation and smiles. Once everyone has been greeted the selection crew asks everyone to wait in another room or out in the hall as they start doing what they came in to do, jury artwork. Sets of eyes peer in as the process begins. Soon, each artist is asked to come and speak to the selection crew and this is our time to represent ourselves and our work, and we do. If a Spanish-speaking artist is present I’m there to help with translation; no artísta is left out. After a couple of very short hours, artists are told which of their pieces have been selected and it’s time to say goodbye. Everyone has to leave the studio so the selection crew can package art that will be carted off to U-M’s studio. There it will stay and become a part of the next process that we call “second pass”. Another perk of being a tutor is that I stayed behind when everyone else left the studio, to help box things up or cut a mat for a piece that needed it. This was a nice time for a small and more personal visit.
WHEN ARTISTS LEAVE the studio, well, there’s a short, sweet, and exciting after-party on the way back to the cells. Walking back to the confines of a prison bed, smiles and an aura of pride surround each artist and each is thinking about the events of the day. There are always conversations about which piece was taken from whom and what “so-&-so” said about “whose” work. Walking slowly back to our 6 or 8 men cubes there is always an air of validation around us because we did alright. We discuss the critiques, how one piece was overlooked, or the significance of another one. Presenting artwork to PCAP during art selection trips is a positively charged and motivating moment for artists inside. It’s a very uplifting and motivating time of year. Everyone is pumped and it makes us want to start the process all over again, and it’s barely even ended.
TO SAY THIS EVENT is an emotional rollercoaster is an understatement. Not just for the artists but for their families, friends, new connections, and thousands of others throughout Michigan too. There are emotional strains when creating and showing your art, especially if one’s work is about a very personal and negative experience, or otherwise; but, what artist, famous or not, hasn’t gone through this? It just makes all the positives that come afterwards feel that much better. Anyone who has gone through this knows what I’m talking about.
A FEW MONTH AFTER the annual exhibition in March (more on that in the next section) artists look forward to receiving packets from PCAP that are filled with emotional and motivational gifts. Each packet contains pages of comments left in the gallery’s guest book for participating artists, left by the hundreds (If not thousands) of supportive gallery viewers. There are also critiques from friends, artists, and professionals out here; and, some fortunate ones have a check that will be deposited in their prison account if a piece is sold. Oh, there’s a video of the annual exhibit sent to each prison. Every art piece that has been selected, along with the artists' name, is shown on the prison’s close circuit TV. The video is professionally done and when an artist’s piece is shown, everyone watching is yelling at them in fun or admiration(more on that in the next section). These packets are validation of the highest form for all the artists. They are also a very motivational tool for starting the process all over again. Some artists have been doing this for decades, others have a year or two in, and some are just beginning, or will after they see the videos that are shown to the entire population of every prison in Michigan.
IN CONCLUSION, I want to say how grateful I am to PCAP for having embraced me as a colleague and not just an artist who was formerly incarcerated. And To all the artistas inside, I challenge you to continue to create that masterpiece for next year, whatever it is that you’re working on. For those of you with a little more creativity, I challenge you to paint the emotional rollercoaster I just described! I have to tell you, though; one, it won’t be easy; and, two, I’ll be there to see your creations on our next selection trips!