by Absa Fall, Isa Berliner, and Melissa Wang, JAC Interns
Justice Arts Coalition (JAC) is proud to celebrate the 25th Annual Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners. We invite you to view the virtual exhibition from March 16 to March 31 and attend the concurrent online events, such as an artists panel and a guided exhibit tour. JAC spoke with Janie Paul, who co-founded the exhibition in 1996 through the Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP) with her late husband, William “Buzz” Alexander. Over the course of her time as the Senior Curator for PCAP, Janie has watched the exhibition grow to include more and more talented artists from prisons across the state.
PCAP was launched in 1990 by Buzz, at the time a professor at the University of Michigan. His first experience with theater in prison was with incarcerated women. He was hooked, and continued to do theater and poetry workshops at both men’s and women’s facilities. He was motivated to increase opportunities for people in prison to engage in the arts. And he wanted people on the outside to benefit as he was; so he developed university classes in which his students also facilitated theater and writing workshops in prisons and juvenile facilities. Buzz was a writer and a big art appreciator, and Janie was a visual artist, painter, and teacher. When Janie moved to Michigan from New York in 1995 to teach art in prison and be with Buzz, the two bonded over their common experiences and beliefs. Together, they were political activists and devoted educators who shared a deep understanding of the ways mass incarceration was structurally bound to the foundations of this country.
Their collaboration ultimately culminated in Buzz’s suggestion of hosting a small exhibition of artwork by incarcerated people in Michigan. The purpose was to highlight the work of the artists and draw attention to the role that racism plays in mass incarceration. Over the years, the exhibition has grown into an annual event that features hundreds of artists from across Michigan’s prisons.
For this year’s show, a group of eight curators traveled to prisons throughout Michigan to collaboratively curate the exhibition. The previous show was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but rising to the challenges of this unprecedented era, PCAP has moved their programming to virtual spaces. The 2021 exhibition includes the never before seen pieces from 2020 and marks PCAP’s first ever digital exhibit. This innovative new approach has allowed the opportunity for remote sales, greater accessibility, and accompanying virtual programming. It is also the largest exhibit yet, showcasing over 600 artists and about 830 pieces.
PCAP’s exhibition negotiates the boundary between the outside world and the “culture of artmaking in prison.” As a viewer, you are invited to witness manifestations of heart, storytelling, and imagination from these hundreds of artists. Janie explains, “On a deeper level, art is a way to really truly be more of who you are and speak the truth.” This truth counteracts the isolation of prison, giving visibility to the honest voices of incarcerated folks. The art, says Janie, “is a way of keeping your soul alive.”
“We have encouraged people to follow the traditional genres of art that they have done for decades in prison and also encouraged them to open their minds to new visions that come from the heart. And one of the ways we have been able to do this is by making a video of the opening reception, which includes videos of artists who have been released talking about their experiences. It also includes shots of every piece in the show, and that is edited and returned to the prisons … I think that it has had a tremendous effect on people in encouraging them. I think what we are doing is giving them validation and supporting their growth.”
Simultaneously, these exhibitions are crucial because in addition to showcasing artists’ talents, they provide an opportunity to earn money for their work. Janie notes that artists in prison can make money from a variety of artistic practices, including “cards and tattooing.” Furthermore, Janie explains that artists can gain a lot of prestige for their skill. “So in a place where people are really undervalued,” she says, “it’s a way for them to stand out.”
For the 25th Annual Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners, artwork sales appointments will be available March 17–March 31, 2021, and visitors can book sales appointments on the exhibit website. All sales will be made by phone, and all of the artwork will be shipped to customers. All proceeds, minus necessary taxes and fees, go directly to the artists.
With an array of diverse artistic mediums, styles, and subjects, PCAP’s 2021 exhibition continues its mission of “connecting people impacted by the justice system with those in the free world.” For 25 years, PCAP has been a leader and example in the movement toward social justice through the arts. The persistence of Buzz and Janie’s vision, evident in this year’s extraordinary exhibition, is a testament to their commitment to this work and will continue to impact and inspire artists and audiences everywhere. At the end of the day, as Janie says, this exhibit is “a really good way to see some really fascinating art.”
Janie shared with us some of her favorite pieces from the exhibition. Continue reading for a deep-dive into the mind of a PCAP curator!
“Arrested Development” by Lawrence Danzler-Bey
The artist has captured a very common scene in prison: two men playing chess in the yard, surrounded by other men at tables, all surrounded by the track where people run and walk. The artist has situated the viewer within the space of the painting – standing near the chess players and probably in conversation. The man facing us is in the midst of a thought or a feeling, or a reaction to us with a poignant expression. The details of the painting tell us something about their hopes and pastimes – religious studies, preparation for financial success, reading for pleasure. These are important facets of prison life – passing the present time and hoping for a better future. The artist has created a dynamic composition to express all this, with the curve of the track encircling the people at their limited leisure activities; the scale differences between figures to indicate scale and space and the choice of just enough details to convey meaning. The title could be interpreted as a play on the fact that the men have been arrested, and/or the stasis of prison that allows only so much growth and development.
“Moon & Owl” by Jeffrey Davis
This is a beautifully done painting of a subject-matter that many of us have seen rendered before. But the artist uses a distinctive visual language to make the work unique. He has used the same kinds of markings throughout the painting, giving it both cohesion and interest through the brushstrokes, which are similar in the moon, in the owl and in the tree. The colors are wonderfully organized, with the yellows in the moon resonating with the yellow highlights in the tree and the owl’s eyes along with the gradation of blues in the sky. The artist creates the feeling of a moment in time by capturing the gesture of the owl’s tilted head as well as the gestures of the tree branches.
To learn more about the exhibition please check out the press release here.
Photo Credit: Fernanda Pires