From August 11th until September 1st of 2023, The Prison Creative Arts Project's (PCAP) Shared Humanity exhibit at the Greater Flint Arts Council was on public display. I joined a few fellow PCAP Linkage members and our esteemed representative, Sarah Unrath, in both the opening and the final evening's festivities.
As we shared with the community the joy of viewing dozens of unique creations, I reflected upon the pride of accomplishment and boost of morale that the yet incarcerated artists would experience. Within the barbed fences, behind the locked doors, ones audience is literally a captive one. There is a special kind of validation that comes with the appreciation of others who are not.
A student from the University of Michigan, Eliana Pettigrew, observed, "After viewing such amazing displays of artistry, not only was I impressed by the level of skill that the pieces displayed but also the resilience evident in the artwork. Each piece told a different story, but when I looked at each one I imagined the talent and perseverance necessary to create art in situations that are more trying than anything I can really imagine. Art is such a powerful way to communicate ideas that sometimes cannot be captured with words. I think there is something so beautiful and important about trying to understand one another, and art can really help us to bridge these gaps between lived experience versus second hand observation."
The last night of the exhibit proved to be unequivocally emotional for all in attendance. The film screening of Master of Light had presented an almost surreal journey of George Anthony Morton, a former prisoner who discovered his passion for classical painting while incarcerated. He excelled upon release through prestigious schooling and encouragement from his mentors. The film chronicles the freed Atlanta native as he visits and attempts to reconcile with his estranged family, having them pose individually as he skillfully renders their images onto canvas. His success came not without the common challenges of many returning to society after years of captivity.
GFAC President and CEO, Greg Fiedler, joined PCAP and U-M students afterward for an in depth discussion on how the film and the exhibit impacted them.
Student, Gabriel Fanning, commented, "I’ve read a lot about prison conditions. The gallery showing, the movie, and the ensuing discussion all really moved me to see beyond just words on a page and really think about the human aspect of the stories I was seeing and hearing. Being in an environment that so thoroughly humanizes a group truly opened my eyes - it was the sort of thing that feels like a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but thanks to PCAP and organizations like it, is becoming increasingly more common."
Gabriel indicated that he grew up with artist parents. His mom is a visual artist and gallery curator, and his dad is a poet and professor of creative writing. He says that one thing he knows about is the power art has to unite and draw attention to individuals and communities.
Praising the exhibit, Gabriel promoted, "The Shared Humanity exhibit was truly beautiful - filled with the work of so many stunning and incredibly skilled artists, it really is a perfect showcase of the humanity of the incarcerated and formerly incarcerated.
Walking through the exhibit really felt like listening to the individual stories of the artists.
"The Master of Light movie, after seeing the exhibit," he assured, "was an especially powerful way to see how art can change society’s view of the artists. I really do believe that if everyone watched the movie or strolled through the exhibit, the average person’s view of incarcerated people and their willingness to support the arts in prison would be greatly and positively affected."
I asked Gabriel about his thoughts on the importance of art as a tool of healing, to which he replied, "I believe rehabilitation can come through a lot of different methods, and whatever best helps a person is probably up to the individual - but art is absolutely a uniting force in all humans, and I think it could play an important role in many or even most people’s journey. It should be a basic human right to have the freedom and space to creatively express oneself, and the growing movement to provide art classes, safe spaces for the arts, and art supplies to the incarcerated is really a wonderful thing.
Although everyone’s path in life is different, we all interact with the arts simply by being alive and existing in the world, and every interaction we have with them has the potential to change and affect us - creating something, no matter how big or small, allows a person to express their emotions, share their story with others, and show the world their thoughts." Rehabilitation is a complex thing, but after seeing the journey and experiences of Master of Light’s main character and participating in the discussion after the screening, I believe that the ability to use art for these purposes can lead a person to rehabilitation and growth."
On societal support of prison art, Eliana explained, "I think that society would be more open to supporting projects like PCAP because of the immense talent obvious in both the Shared Humanity exhibit and in Master of Light, but I also hope that society will someday be able to see art not only for its worth if it is considered "well-executed"- in my opinion, art is just as important as a vehicle for healing and catharsis as it is a way to create something that others also view as masterful. I hope that every artist can be celebrated for their art but also for what art can do to help them deal with the trials they face in life.
One point mentioned in the discussion after the Master of Light screening was that the main character of the film may have had a much harder time continuing to create art if he was not so talented, which I thought was really important to consider; I think people should have inherent value as opposed to being seen as only useful if they serve some purpose or have exceptional talents.”
I found Eliana's grasp of a deeper motivation to create art than just for accolades or profit profoundly resonating, and especially appreciated her thoughts on the inherent value of all people.
About the aspect of the arts being able to heal, Eliana summed up, "I think that everyone can benefit from more art in their lives, whether they are creating themselves or finding opportunities to be exposed to art that they love. I think that art can be a powerful tool especially in prisons, where many people find themselves in situations that seem hopeless.”
I believe in the power of art to bring hope and peace to all kinds of people, no matter who they are or what trials they face.
“I also recognize that art must be paired with other positive changes in society to make a positive and permanent difference, and I hope that these changes can come as well."
This incredible exhibition, which was also curated by PCAP Linkage Members, combined with the intensely moving Master of Light had indeed left an indelible mark upon the hearts and souls of all who were in attendance. I am so proud of everyone who took part in the planning and preparation of this event and am ever grateful to Gabriel and Eliana for their personal insight. GFAC and PCAP work so well together, and I look forward to future opportunities when we can cumulatively share our humanity.
"Dr. Seuss and Walt Disney sparked my fire for poetry, story, and song at an early age. An auntie school teacher added some kindling along the way. Adolescent angst and hormonal romance tossed firecrackers into the blaze, and some serious study of some masterful wordsmiths in college shot fireworks into the heavens of my literary soul. The resulting embers of English within me continue to crackle whenever stoked or provoked to burn. My muse likes it hot, and I can't say I disagree." -Kirk Fitchett (aka Flint Kougar)
Article is made possible by the Linkage Community Journalism Initiative.
Headshot by Adolfo Cruz Jr. @ uptown24studio.com