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.

Bryan Picken

Bryan Picken is an artist who spent 17 years incarcerated. He was released in January 2020 and began volunteering with PCAP immediately, recording an audio tour of the exhibition. Picken joined the  PCAP curator team later that year, selecting work for PCAP’s upcoming Miniatures exhibit and working on artist engagement videos. These videos will help connect incarcerated artists with PCAP’s curators during this pandemic year, when in-person visits aren’t possible. 

How did you get involved with PCAP? 

Picken: I was incarcerated myself. I went in in 2000 and started doing some art at the end of 2002. All the other incarcerated artists were always around, pushing me to do artwork. Then I got a little more than a gentle nudge to enter PCAP's show in 2003! At that time, I got to meet Buzz (Alexander) and Janie (Paul), incredible people. They were very influential on what I was doing artistically for a long time. So overall, I've been involved with PCAP for about 18 years now and I am very excited to be a curator now.

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

Picken: The most rewarding part of being a curator is really getting to work with all of the different pieces, getting to see them firsthand and also getting to write letters to the different artists about the work that's touched me. It is great to give them some encouragement, let them know that people on the outside understand where they are. 

It is also great to be able to be on this 'side' and discuss things out here with other PCAP curators, after being inside for almost 18 years. PCAP's annual show is an important bridge because there's a disconnect; people that have never been in prison don't understand the mentality inside. On the other hand, people who haven't been outside for so long and seen the show don't understand how hard the curators work. 

The challenging part is that I know what the incarcerated artists are thinking and the difficulties they have to find that 'happy' medium to create art. It is important to find a balance and bring everybody together, so that everybody feels included.

What is your personal curatorial intention

Picken: My intent is when I look at the artwork, it's not about how technically advanced an artist is, it's about what they put in the piece, what it means, what the artists do, think of the art itself and of the show, what their intentions are. I think all of that plays into what is chosen. If we can get a good bridge between an artist and a community, we reach our ultimate goal.

Many times when I'm looking at the pieces, I think "this one needs to go in, this one needs to go in!" I'd really like to be able to include as many artists as possible, especially new artists. I want people to feel included. I want them to be part of the process. I want them to have a good experience with PCAP. 

Having said that, I also want the visitors and the people that are coming into purchase art to have a good experience, so I want to get the broadest range of art possible. I'm not going to say the best-looking art, but just the broadest range of art possible, from as many people as we can. This way, the public can see what it is everyone's doing.

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

Picken: Because of COVID, I was just able to actually see all of the art together a few weeks before the show. It was my first time into the storage room, I looked around and looked at everything, saw where everything was captained, how it was prepared and just really got to look at all the art closely. Viewing it on TV in prison is one thing, but getting to see the show in person, getting to pick the artwork up and look at the amazing work that's done first hand is incredible. I was blown away by all of the different colors and all of the different ideas that were shared from the artists.

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

Picken: I've got a few pieces I'm working on right now for a show that another PCAP curator, Martin Vargas, is leading up, in Lansing. I am exploring some of the black and white, with the color images on and working on some 3D pieces. I'm also working—in my spare time—on putting together an iron man helmet out of cardboard. I thought that would be interesting to figure out all the angles and have some fun doing it.

I work on other projects as well, like comics. I began creating comics during my incarceration. It was there I developed several ideas for both single panel and conventional strips. After playing around with many designs, characters, and story lines, I felt confident that some of my work might be good enough to pass by an agent.

An editor I was working with was the first one to see and approve my comics. I've been illustrating his Jewish magazine for 15 years. I'm the only artist in that magazine right now; I do the covers, I do all the inside artwork, everything. I also do comics for newspapers. That is such a difficult field to get into and it's so different from doing a realistic painting because it's simple lines. They're completely different ideas! When you're working artistically, you have all these details, all this emotion, lighting and everything else you have to consider, but you have very little to work with in the comics.

During my incarceration, I contacted two smaller comic publishers listed in the artists market guide that year. It seemed like a good place to start. To my astonishment, the first agency I sent work to accepted my titles! I was blown away! They began that same month by publishing a few of my panels in their catalog, of which they’ve done faithfully for years now. It wasn’t long before my work was published in other places and even used to promote and sell the catalog. 

I've had this amazing privilege of being published with a real agency—a childhood dream of mine—and hope to continue working to gain one of the coveted spots in a newspaper. Only time will tell, but man, has it been fun trying to get there.

Release Date: 04/23/2021
Tags: Prison Creative Arts Project