During our countdown to the digital 25th Annual Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners, which opens March 16, let's take some time to celebrate our team of curators. They are the crew who has been crisscrossing the state to assemble one of the largest prison exhibitions in the world. 

Before COVID-19 hit the world last March, our curators saw almost 2,000 pieces of art created by some 660 incarcerated artists. About 800 of these pieces will be featured in the show, which recognizes a diversity of both artists and artistic choices and portrays a broad array of artistic media and subject matter. 

Martin Vargas

Martin Vargas is a 2-dimensional artist exhibiting at various places around Michigan including The Whitney Building in  Detroit, Om of Medicine in Ann Arbor, Ledge Craft Lane in Grand Ledge, and Clinton County Arts in St. John.

How did you get involved with PCAP? 

Vargas: I really enjoyed being an Art Tutor at ICF [Ionia Correctional Facility], the only MDOC [Michigan Department of Corrections] recognized Art Program with a professional Art Instructor and Studio inside the facility. My work allowed me to teach art to prisoners who were locked up for 23 hours a day in the level 6 part of the prison. Yes, level 6 supermax facility! It was eventually reduced to level 5 after a campaign to stop max.

The Instructor at that time, Mr. Herschell Turner, was a great pastelist who worked primarily on African American portraits with a focus on black cowboys from the early west. In 1994, Hershell was contacted by Buzz Alexander and Janie Paul [PCAP's founders] and asked if he had artists who would participate in the first Annual Art Exhibit to be held at the University of Michigan. And that’s how I got involved with PCAP.

I tried pastels after watching Herschell’s colors pop out of the paper with such luminosity, but all I did was manage to get pastel dust all over the walls, floor, my clothes, hands, and my face! So I went back to my preferred watercolor and charcoal mediums. I watched him close though, and after a couple of months, I decided to try them again. It’s now my preferred medium for portraits of pets and people, and the pastel stays where I want it to. I can thank Herschell for this. He was a great motivator and teacher and if it had not been for him and the art program at ICF, I’m sure I would not have gotten involved with PCAP.

What is the best/and most challenging part of serving as a PCAP curator?

Vargas: The best part of being a curator is the connection with all the wonderful people I get to be around! Also, in a continuous connection with the journey of being an artist, I’m still teaching art; but thankfully, not under the tight and ever watchful constraints of prison staff.

I enjoy the training sessions PCAP holds every year [for workshop facilitators]. The nearly one hundred students and community volunteers are wonderful to work with because of their eagerness to learn. They really want to know what they can, and can’t do, to properly engage with artists at prisons they will eventually go into. From curators and staff, to trainees and volunteers, being with people who are really interested in trying to do the best for prisoners is a wonderful experience.

It’s difficult to say what the most challenging part about being a curator is. I want to say “nothing” but that wouldn’t be entirely true.  Maybe it's the part of wanting to present completely honest views and opinions about projects we work on out here to make PCAP a good and well functioning experiment, but hesitating to do so for fear of hurting somebody’s feelings. Not unlike being inside in some ways…

What is your personal curatorial intention?

Vargas: Great question! Especially because of the “C” in PCAP. My intention is to select pieces that are more emotionally appealing or with stories to tell, rather than ones with more technical skill. Don’t get me wrong, technical skill is very important in art when it’s supposed to be technically arranged. But when it comes to PCAP art selections, for example, I believe that a bird of prey copied from a magazine and painted with great technical skill is not creative; a copy machine can do that. However, art that lacks color or is crudely drawn because the artist lacks technical skill or art supplies — but wants to express a feeling, a dream, a scream at an injustice going on in life—  is a great piece of work. That is where my intention for curating art is stimulated. Art can be beautiful and appealing with bright colors and pretty birds, but art that is healing and informative is more important to me.

Could you share with us a special moment that happened during your work with PCAP?

Vargas: There have been many special moments!  Meeting people who have become lifelong friends, like Cozine Welch and others, has been special and, after decades, I still have personal relationships with them.

I guess a very special one was when I met “Guera” [which means "white girl." In this case, Vargas is referring to Associate Professor Ashley Lucas], who seemed to be interested in talking and I had no idea who she was. After speaking a bit, I believe she asked how I identified myself and I said “Soy Xicano”, convinced she would ask me what that meant. To my surprise, she said that she was Xicana too!

My curiosity piqued for two reasons; first, I had recently started a series of paintings on Modern Xicanas; and second, I have been involved with Xicanismo since I was 16 years old when I was associated with the Brown Berets [a pro-Chicano organization]. In a joking sort of way, I said something along the lines of “What does a "Guera" know about Xicanas?” Smiling with enthusiasm, she started taking me to school and seriously educated me on Xicanismas modernas! Lucas was teaching in North Carolina at the time, but we communicated quite a bit after that. Afterwards, when she transferred to the U-M, and since it was allowed back then, she visited me regularly, at least once a month and we have had a special, familial, type of bond that will last "para siempre…" [forever].

Please, tell us about your artwork. What are you working on nowadays?

Vargas: I am so glad that I sent so much artwork home when I was inside because I have been able to start my own business displaying and selling art because of that. I’ve exhibited and sold work in Detroit, Ann Arbor, East Lansing and Lansing proper, Grand Ledge, and St. Johns because of that. Although I’ve taught art classes out here and worked on a few commissions I have to say that creating my own artwork has been difficult.

The tremendous distractions out here, for lack of a better word, have made it almost impossible for me to continue with something I enjoy so much. I’ve had to juggle with parole conditions, mobile phones and apps, learning how to build a website, learning how to drive and familiarizing myself with the neighborhood and town, learning how to make and get to medical appointments. Learning the how’s and what’s of home ownership is not easy!!! And that’s not even counting working with PCAP. But I have a couple of sketches and a couple of thousand photos I’ve taken; and the many ideas on possible works that I plan on getting to before too long.