ANN ARBOR—Award-winning educator and founder of the Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP), William "Buzz" Alexander, died September 19, at home, surrounded by his family. He was 80 years old.
A legendary figure in the field of arts in corrections, Alexander, then an English professor at the University of Michigan, started working with state prisoners in 1990. He led his first prison theatre workshop at the Florence Crane Correctional Facility (Coldwater, MI).
A student named Liz Boner in his Theatre for Social Change course asked if she could facilitate her off-campus weekly theatre workshop for the class inside the state’s only women’s prison. Alexander agreed and decided to go with her.
"I knew I had to go there with whatever talent I had," Alexander said during an interview in January, 2011. "I didn't have a lot of experience as an actor, I had never been trained as a professional actor, but I knew I could bring something there and eventually developed into bringing all of the arts to the prisons."
An U-M undergrad student at that time, Mary Heinen McPherson (known then as Mary Glover) was the first prisoner Alexander would meet. She was one of the two incarcerated women who wanted to take the theater course inside.
"We were caged and dying, so having that class was really precious and life-saving," said Heinen McPherson, PCAP's Project Coordinator. "Through theater, Buzz started to teach us how to work together to resolve conflict, how to survive, to deal with depression and diseases. He was wonderful from the beginning."
After the first workshops, the two women felt they needed to expand the opportunity to the whole prison. They appealed to the warden, who quickly approved. "That was a powerful moment," Heinen McPherson said. "About 120 women signed up for the workshop and 60 really showed up. The ride was just getting started."
This journey—which has inspired incarcerated people to express themselves through the arts—will have lasted 30 years in 2020. During three decades, the program founded by Alexander, has been fostering the creation of original and high quality work in the arts— theatre, creative writing, music, visual art, and photography. It has impacted thousands of people inside and out for decades.
The year-round programming reaches not only 27 adult Michigan correctional facilities (26 MDOC and 1 federal), but also several youth facilities, the Forensic Psychiatric Center and one public housing community. It provides engaging workshops organized by PCAP staff in partnership with volunteers, which includes U-M students, faculty, formerly incarcerated people and community.
"We send more volunteers into our workshops in carceral facilities every week than any other program I’ve seen," said former PCAP Director Ashley Lucas, Associate Professor of Theatre & Drama and the Residential College. "We’re averaging for the last few years about 80 facilitators a week going inside. Add in the other PCAP volunteers who don’t go to prison every week but participate in the art selection trips and lit review editorial committee, and our numbers are closer to 125 volunteers per semester."
One of the most well known and prestigious piece of the program is the Annual Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners, which began in 1996. Together with his wife Janie Paul, a community-based artist and emeritus professor at U-M, Alexander started the first annual exhibition after traveling to 16 prisons in Michigan to collect art from prisoners inside.
“We were just mind blown by the work,” Paul said. “We discovered it was such an important event both for the artists inside and for the community because it brought us all together.”
The largest curated exhibition of art by incarcerated people in the nation is now going into its 25th year. Each year it features a diversity of both artists and artistic genres. Artists range in age from those in their late teens to senior citizens. They are men and women from across the state with diverse racial, ethnic, socio-economic backgrounds and identities. There is also a broad array of artistic media and subject matter, including landscapes, portraits, prison scenes, and political statements.
"One of the incredible things that Buzz (Alexander) did that no one else has done is to embed our program so firmly and broadly and with such longevity in the prisons and the university," said Lucas. "Anyone else building a program of this kind would not have the scope of vision or the stamina to do what he did."
Heinen McPherson couldn't agree more. She said Alexander created an art and social change revolution. "We were not there to kill time, but fighting for our survival," she said. "Buzz is legendary for his big heart, his wisdom and kindness in wanting to come to prisons to begin with, and meet with prisoners to create theatre, art and beauty, and a way out that doesn't necessarily involve courts or a parole board. He helped us free our minds and creativity. He is deeply loved and will be missed forever.”
The faculty, staff, students, and currently and formerly incarcerated PCAP participants remain committed to Alexander’s social justice vision and to continuing his life’s work.
“We have suffered an extraordinary loss as Buzz left this world, but he gave us a great deal that remains," Lucas said. "Hundreds of his former students are all over the world doing social justice and arts work, and a great many more PCAP participants who spent time in prison honor Buzz with all they give to the world. He made us a family, and we show our gratitude by continuing the work.”