Curators Highlight Series

As we celebrate 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 2,500 pieces of art created by some 660 incarcerated artists. About 800 of these pieces were 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

Jessy Butts is a professional visual artist with a Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) in drawing, painting, and sculpture. She is an arts educator who has over 16 years of experience working with adults with disabilities and underserved populations. She taught art in Detroit public schools through the CCS Community Arts Partnership program and worked for five years at the Detroit Institute of Arts as a studio assistant and as a Bedside Art Facilitator at the Children’s Hospital of Detroit.

How did you get involved with PCAP?

Butts: A dear friend, Jason [Wright] was a curator and invited me to join in 2019. Upon meeting the group and going on my first visit, I was hooked!

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

Butts: The best part is being able to connect with the artists and giving them feedback while hopefully encouraging them to continue making art. The artwork is fantastic and always exciting to see!

One of the best and most eye-opening things for me was hearing from the artists that our visits are what they look forward to all year. Of course, I adore my fellow curators and the PCAP team and find it very gratifying to be part of this project and such a great group of people.

The most challenging part is that there are a lot of moving parts with volumes of information, especially while working remotely, so it can be challenging to keep it all straight. I'm sure as I have more time under my belt with PCAP I'll become more familiar with all of the details and the vast array of what we do.

What is your personal curatorial intention?

Butts: One of the most important objectives is inclusivity so that is one deciding factor in the volume of artwork accepted, but mostly I like to see a well-rounded body of work that includes many different themes, techniques, and materials.

I'm personally drawn to beautiful marks, striking imagery, and innovation. It's fascinating to see how the artists innovate with limited materials and create extremely intricate pieces with often complex moving parts. I also love humorous and edgy themes as well as obsessive details that portray the sheer amount of time spent on a piece.

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

Butts: I've definitely had meaningful interactions along the way. One that stands out, in particular, was a gentleman whose work I found to be very interesting and technically well done who seemed distant at the beginning of our conversation: no real eye contact, it seemed perhaps a bit uncomfortable.

However, our conversation progressed as I laid out all the reasons, from one artist to another, why his work was special and his potential was great. By the end, his whole demeanor changed, he was smiling and making eye contact. It felt good to connect with him and hopefully help him to feel respected as an artist.

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

Butts: Throughout the pandemic, my artistic focus has shifted to music and singing in a band with two dear friends. We're due to release our first album in the very near future...exciting!

Historically, my visual artwork has focused on creating illustrative portraiture of "imaginary" people, abstract paintings and drawings, and sculptures using various mediums from oil paint to assemblage. Much like the work to which I'm drawn, I focus on obsessive details, hidden symbolism, beautiful marks, and interesting (to me) themes. I think human behavior is fascinating and complex and often the themes of my work convey emotionally muted characters with rich personalities in an occasionally antagonistic approach. I also love absurdity and regularly use it as a theme. 

For example, in my "Make, Shrink, Magnify" series, I freehand various imaginary characters on shrinky dinks, shrink them down, then magnify them in what feels like an absurd back and forth process of shrinking and magnifying, setting them against sometimes humorous and always evolving backgrounds. The magnifier provides a viewing experience that is distorted in motion while the interchangeable backgrounds provide different narratives. I like the idea that these little atmospheric worlds stubbornly require you to come to them, usually demanding the viewer to focus solely on it, rather than kindly allowing one to see it from across the room or at least at a respectable distance.

Release Date: 04/09/2021
Tags: Prison Creative Arts Project