Curators Highlight Series

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

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. 

Charlie Michaels

Charlie Michaels has been a curator of the Annual Exhibition since 2013. He is a studio and community artist living in Southeast Michigan. His work focuses broadly on relationships between people, nature, and urban environments through exhibitions, ephemeral installations, works on paper, and public projects that engage youth and communities locally in Detroit and globally in Ghana and Indonesia. Michaels has taught local and international socially engaged arts courses at U-M and is currently Associate Director of the Center for Socially Engaged Design in the U-M College of Engineering.

How did you get involved with PCAP?

Michaels: I got involved with PCAP just after I finished graduate school at Michigan. I had been a student of Janie Paul's (the PCAP exhibition’s founder), so I was familiar with PCAP. I had seen the show many times and had spent time with Janie looking at and hearing stories about the PCAP artwork. In my own art practice, I was interested in the art making process as a tool for community building and social justice action. When I graduated in 2011, I took on the role of photographing the artwork and helping hang the exhibition in the gallery and in 2012 I joined the curator team and started going on selection visits. At that time, the curator team included Janie along with Buzz Alexander, Sari Adelson and Jason Wright.

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

Michaels: The best part is undoubtedly the conversations and the connections we make with artists on our visits. The exhibition itself is the tip of the iceberg and the visits are what is under the surface. To me, the visits are the most important part of the process, but they are also the part that is hidden to the general public. On these trips we talk with people about their work (sometimes 50+ at a time) and select work that we will feature in the exhibition. These conversations are the cornerstone to the whole project. I like to think of them as a kind of intervention or interruption of day to day life (for both the curators and the artists). Through these visits we collectively build a community and a support network of artists and teachers that extends through the prisons and beyond —opening up pathways for artists to get feedback, generate new ideas, and form connections. It always gives me lots of energy.

The trips are also a cool experience because we visit far and unique corners of the state, lots of places I would likely not otherwise get to visit. While traveling across Michigan with PCAP, I have had many different kinds of pie in many different diners, watched softball-on-ice, slept in a lighthouse, and seen some incredibly beautiful landscapes.

The most challenging part is definitely telling an artist we will not be accepting their work. It's more challenging than curating a traditional juried exhibition because we deliver this news in person, face-to-face. We want to support and encourage people in their work as much as we can and sometimes the best way to do that is to say no. If you take anything anyone submits, then getting accepted into the exhibition doesn't feel like an accomplishment or something to work toward. Honoring an artist's effort and helping them grow sometimes has to come in the form of a supportive "no"— one that is paired with positive feedback and a discussion about where they might want to go next with their work. More often than not, artists we say "no" to come back the next year with new and different work.

What is your personal curatorial intention?

Michaels: I look for someone making an individual or personal investment in what they are doing, whether that is a large and detailed painting, a pencil portrait, or a small and simple abstract sketch. There is no formula, but it is something you can feel by looking carefully. It could look like careful consideration of a particular detail and effort to get hair rendered exactly right. Or it might not be realistic at all and instead the investment is a sincere intention to visually describe an idea or concept from their imagination that is stylistic and unique. I value more traditional realistic work and the labor involved, but also artists who are deviating from a more stereotypical definition of what might be considered "good" to try something new, reveal something about themselves, or build a visual vocabulary that is unique to them. This ability to be invested in being an individual in your work is hard. It takes bravery and risk. That's how I would describe what we're looking for.

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

Michaels: The time we had a gourmet lunch made for us inside Macomb Correctional Facility. It was super impressive. An artist that had been in the PCAP exhibition for decades arranged for guys in the food tech program at the facility to make lunch for the artists and the PCAP curators. The meal was three courses with dessert featuring professionally printed menus and servers. We were all scattered around a room sitting at small tables together. The food was great, but I also loved this because so often on selection visits our time is very limited and sometimes you get into a conversation with an artist that feels like it could go on for hours, and there is this tension because you want to have that conversation but know you also need to talk to others in the room. Time is limited. It's tempting to say, "Let’s just go grab a bite", but of course you can't, and that day we did!

I'll also never forget the year the dog (training) program started in Michigan. Suddenly there were puppies rolling around so many of the art selection visits which, of course, elevates everyone's mood.

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

Michaels: My artmaking process is very slow these days. It is hard to find the time to really dig in. The past few years I have mostly been working on black and white pen and graphite drawings that are inspired by a short story by the author Italo Calvino. They are abstract, but reference both natural forms and architectural structures that seem as if they are falling and being built simultaneously. I also consider PCAP to be part of my broader artistic practice. Not that it is my artwork, per se, but it's always been important for me to both have an art practice and to share that process with others in ways other than exhibiting work.

Release Date: 03/19/2021
Tags: Prison Creative Arts Project