Where Do I Begin?

by Daryl Rattew

    I managed to get to Ann Arbor in time for the PCAP 27th Annual Exhibition at around 5:35pm on a Tuesday afternoon.  It was late, but still light outside.  Unfortunately, due to my lack of effective planning and my stubborn sense of self-reliance, it took me forty-five minutes to find a parking spot.  After driving circles around the Duderstadt building three times, I managed to find a parking lot that was about a half a mile away.

    I wrestled with the parking toll machine, rushed towards the Duderstadt building (from a completely wrong direction), took a long detour around some College Chemical Engineering buildings, and (with the advice of some helpful students) walked into the building from the alleyway behind it. I managed to follow the signs posted in the lobby, and to the desk clerk who cheerfully pointed everyone to the elevators with a look of exasperation on her face. I gave her a smile, if only to help her feel that what she was doing was fulfilling a mission for the common good and I obediently proceeded via elevator to the ground floor.

    As the elevator settled, I came around to a giant room. I saw the people gathering in a staged area. The room was dark and the stage was flanked with lighting and multiple large screen TVs that were showing prisoner artwork. People were mulling around and talking. It didn’t take me long to spot the two Sarahs (who were each piloting their own social whirlwinds of people) and I managed to work out the order of things, and I took a seat. People filed in over a half an hour. As the clock drew closer to seven, I realized that I wasn’t the only one who was a bit late. I wondered how all of these people had managed to find this place amidst the Ann Arbor University sprawl surrounding and above us.

    I spotted Janie Paul, found a seat next to her and sat in the front row, where I met some of the people that she has been working with for the last twenty-five years. It is humbling to be sitting next to a person whose life’s work has been trying to be a voice for those who do not have their own. In fact, she allowed me to have mine. It’s a feeling of unfathomable awe, and I cannot help but feel that everything that I do is somewhat fleeting and superficial. I wonder at all the times that saints and angels have hovered about me, without my awareness of them.

    The show begins. Speakers ascend to the raised platform and discuss to the audience what the legacy and meaning of PCAP is. It is important. And everyone is deeply serious, and the words are meaningful and moving and full of hope and inspiration. There is an urgency in the mission to care about those who are forgotten behind the veil of incarceration. And it matters that we remember and think of those who cannot be there with us, because they are locked up, and some will never get to leave.

    And then the time comes for me to speak.  I have to say my part.  Afterall, I too, was a prisoner.  But I didn’t stare in the mirror and rehearse some speech for this.  What can I say?  What can I say to stitch it all together, all of these lost hollow feelings inside of myself, all these years of trauma and disillusionment?  What can I say to make it all make sense?     

    I once dreamed of being an artist.  I still cling to that notion, despite the digital and steel world about me.  I still believe in the spoken word, despite the modern cultural didactic.  I still believe in the good of people, despite our disassociations, our indifference, and our cancel culture.     

    And people don’t really know me.  They probably won’t understand me when I say that I am a modern Faust:  I am an idiotic romantic that has thrown himself off a cliff in disdain for all that is reasonable in our world.  I have forsaken all logic and reason for the fancy of my heart.

    And the world rejected me for it, understandably so.  For I am the incarnation of romanticism, in a world of absolute reason.  I am a poet in a time of cold steel and snow.  I am a painter, when all that I was taught in school was to be obedient.  I have a hard edge that will never be cured by this world, no matter how they try to euthanize my aesthetic.  The world has seen fit to torture me for my passion.  This is my lot.  I deserved it as such.  I am the modern world’s latest tortured-artist masterpiece, in a world that simply wants to forget that I have ever existed.    

And yet I must speak.  And so I do:     

    “PCAP is the Prison Creative Arts Project.  It’s important.  Its mission is invaluable.  It gives a voice to prisoners.  It gives expression to people who don’t get to express the way they feel to the public at large.  It is a vital bridge of communication between us and those that the world is trying to forget.  Its mission is to tell the story of the prisoners: those people who are incarcerated and locked up behind gray walls of authority, and it makes all people who witness it realize the tremendous transubstantiating powers of art as a form of human expression and connection.

    Even though prisoners don’t get to speak, and their voices are silenced by the powers that be, they still can communicate to us through their art, and their art is amazing, vibrant, expressive, and infinitely precious. And in turn, we get to witness that prisoners themselves are all amazing, vibrant, expressive, and infinitely precious human beings who have not been forgotten, even if our world tries to convince us that it is so. We reject it. We are offended by it. Shame on the world for its lack of mercy. Shame on the powers that be for not trying to hear the voices of those who are oppressed in prison and are suffering. And we should not condone a heartless judgement that people who have commit crimes are therefore disposable and lacking in worth.

    Because people are neither good nor evil but choose at any given moment to do what they feel is best. It takes merely a split second of catastrophic self-doubt that can fuel a lifetime of evil. But people can change and do change. Very often, the impetus for change can come in the form of feeling a sense of meaning or purpose.  

Even still, it has preserved me to this day, as has my faith, and it is the vehicle for which I convey this message to you.     

    PCAP is a vehicle of change in our society that is attempting to give humanity to those who have lost its auspices.  PCAP can give a sense of meaning and purpose to those who may not have anything else.  It’s important work.  It needs to continue and grow at all costs, because its mission is compassion, love, and understanding towards those people whom society deems to be the least valuable members of society.  I hope that I do not sound presumptuous when I say that reaching out to the disenfranchised of our society is a holy duty and charge for all of us, and it should not be neglected.  Our humanity is at peril if we should choose to continue to be oblivious to the pain of those whom we are taught to believe matter the least.”     

    That’s all that I really had to say, and I don’t really believe that the message is my own to give, but one of a vision of a higher humanity that we should in earnest attempt to achieve.

    And I have spoken and said it all. When I am done, I hear the applause, I feel the connection and the rush. I feel that it matters, but soon, after the handshakes and the adulation and the niceties, I find that I am still somehow alone. I don’t know why I thought that my words would suddenly change everything, because if the world is a certain way, it didn’t just get there overnight. I feel that what I said was a drop in the bucket. I worry that everyone nodded and applauded, but nobody really heard me, or truly understood the depth of my words, or the hidden depths of pain and despair that I brought it from.

    Sarah escorted me to the lobby and I talked to some very nice strangers. I tried to feel a sense of connection with people, but it receded like a mirage on the horizon. Janie Paul gave me a copy of her book and signed it for me. It’s a nice book and my art is in it. It’s nice. I’m happy for her. I remarked to her that, somehow, I felt like the character from Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye”. I merely stated it, because the character in that book is so lost and aimless. It is a mirror of how I felt.

    And I realize that I am a broken individual, lonely and in pain, feeling disaffected by it all and thoroughly disillusioned at times, and heartbroken at it all, for I know the truth. The truth is that as much as I can rail about the right and important things to do, I can’t even find a job. And I have terrible gout pain. No one cares that I wrote and published a book. No one is buying my art. No one cares. I don’t really know what to do. And this voice that I have, will anyone ever really listen to me? Afterall, I am just an ex-prisoner, the lowest of the low, the scum of the earth. I don’t know what tomorrow will bring. I worry constantly. I am lost.  

It is no wonder that the world is the way it is anymore.     

    It was 8:35pm, according to my watch.  Three hours had passed.  Somewhere, lost in the middle of Ann Arbor, a hundred miles from home, the lights had gone out.  The event was over, and everyone had disappeared into the sky like Van Gogh’s crows.  I walked myself to my car.  I walked in the wrong direction, up a steep hill that left me out of breath and wondering if I would ever make it back to my car in the darkness.  My cell phone battery was at twenty percent, and there was no one that I could turn to for help.  Somehow, despite all that, I managed to get home safely.     

    I still have hope in humanity, and I still dream, despite reality.  And I am not done, yet, despite my occasional self-doubt.  But I don’t know if anyone is listening still.  Perhaps they never will.

Daryl Rattew is an artist/author who is currently an undergraduate at University of Michigan. He is working on a bachelor's degree in general studies.

Article is made possible by the Linkage Community Journalism Initiative.

Exhibit photography: Nate Kennedy, @‌natekennedygram

Release Date: 04/23/2023
Tags: Prison Creative Arts Project