U-M’s Prison Creative Arts Project gives prisoners creative outlet, connection to others outside

By: Jonathan Shead | Online Only | Published April 25, 2020

 U-M graduate students Megan Wilson and Jesse Zhou look over artwork created by inmates for the Prison Creative Arts Project.

U-M graduate students Megan Wilson and Jesse Zhou look over artwork created by inmates for the Prison Creative Arts Project.

Photos provided by Fernanda Pires, University of Michigan News

 U-M PCAP staff and volunteers meeting with an inmate at the Marquette Branch Prison

U-M PCAP staff and volunteers meeting with an inmate at the Marquette Branch Prison

For the past 25 years the University of Michigan Prison Creative Arts Project has given prisoners at state correctional facilities a chance to be seen, heard and understood from beyond the prison walls. 

The project has scoured the state, driving 3,800 miles to 26 prisons to choose artwork for this year’s exhibit. 

While the exhibit was originally slated to run March 18-April 1, PCAP Director Nora Krinitsky announced in a news release that the scheduled exhibit had to be cancelled due to rising COVID-19 health concerns. 

“It is with sadness that I write to you that the 25th annual Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners has been cancelled,” she said. “We are exploring options to reschedule this show at a later date and will provide more information as soon as it’s available. In the meantime, a limited number of works… will be viewable in an online preview soon. There will be no online sales of art.” 

An online preview of the exhibit can now be seen at https://lsa.umich.edu/pcap/news-events/all-news/search-news/25-years-of-the-annual-exhibition-of-art-by-michigan-prisoners.html

Exhibit curators, made up of U-M students, staff, faculty, community members and local artists — three of whom were formerly incarcerated — sifted through roughly 2,000 works of art from 660 prisoners to choose the final approximately 800 pieces that will be featured in this year’s exhibit.

Despite the artists being bound by limited art supplies, for safety reasons, PCAP Associate Director Vanessa Mayesky said she is “constantly impressed” by the work she sees. 

“I am constantly impressed with the depth of expression and technical expertise that shows through. Even with limited supplies — some of these artists are working strictly with a ballpoint pen and they are meticulous in their shading. … They have spent hours laboring over every detail and making sure that even though they only have one ballpoint pen, that they’re using different pressure to make a beautiful piece of work,” she said, adding that others aren’t restricted by materials, but by money. 

“The artists are ordering their supplies from the same catalog that people on the outside order from, and they don’t receive a discount. … When you think about it, their hourly rate is something like $1 an hour.” She said that oftentimes, those artists will really have to stretch their supplies to last, though that doesn’t impact their ability to create a beautiful piece, Mayesky thinks. 

With over 800 pieces of artwork in the exhibit, Mayesky said, themes, unbeknownst at the beginning, begin to sprout and form together: animals, nature and Michigan wildlife; societal issues like incarceration and water justice, and the artist’s or the people’s place in it; portraiture, based on celebrities, family members and loved ones; and artwork based more in surrealism. 

Incarcerated artist Steven H., from the Cooper Street Correctional Facility, created his work, “Prison Rich,” using a pair of shoes, acrylic ink, thread and a plastic cable tie to start a dialogue about his and others’ experiences. 

“I wanted to create something provocative, to start a dialogue about mass incarceration and the lack of richness in anything with the absence of freedom,” he said in a press release. “Inside (prison) we are just treated like numbers. When we move facilities, they put all our possessions in a green duffel bag with a plastic cable tie and our inmate number. This relocation process is portrayed in my art.” 

Through all these themes, Mayesky said, the message that shines through is how connected the locked-up artists still are to the outside world. That in turn reinvigorates a sense of humanity in them — reminding them and those on the outside that they’re more than a number. 

“It’s such a lovely connection to see being made between people that our society has largely forgotten about or categorized as a bloc as opposed to individuals who are artists and creators, and gallery visitors who may or may not know anyone in prison,” Mayesky said. “What we hear from artists every year is that they rely on this show not only as an outlet for their own creativity, but to feel as if they’re fully participating in the world.” 

Susan B., who has been incarcerated in the Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility in Ypsilanti for 17 years, said creating art gives her a purpose. 

“Through (art), I have been learning how to deal with conflict, that is part of my life, in a healthy and productive way,” she said in a press release. “Each piece that gets selected gives me hope that someone will be touched by my creations.” This year the exhibit will feature Susan’s piece “Bob, the Redeemer,” a 3-dimensional sculpture of tissue paper and 347,929 hand-placed beads to show the similarities between bucks killed yearly and prisoners in Michigan’s state facilities. 

As the program has grown over the last 25 years to include more gallery visitors, more incarcerated artists and their artwork, more correctional facilities across the state, and participation from higher security levels, it has paved the way for more people with artistic talent in Michigan to be heard, regardless of their pre-existing circumstances. It’s also allowed gallery visitors a chance to get to know and understand these artists on a deeper level than may be found in a traditional art gallery. 

“It’s a way to really take a moment and think about the people in society who are incarcerated and what that means. How can you relate to people who are incarcerated?” Mayesky said that’s one reason why people should check out the exhibit. “It’s a wonderful way to not only experience great art, but also connect with people that you might not with in any other way.” 

Proceeds from art sales go directly to the artist, who many times choose to use it for more art supplies, Mayesky said. She said there are opportunities for visitors to give feedback directly to the artists through the exhibit as well. 

With the exhibit canceled until further notice, Krinitsky encouraged people to remember the resiliency prisoners have throughout their time served. 

“They constantly remind us of the incredible vitality and fortitude of the human spirit, even under the worst circumstances. It’s a lesson we need now more than ever,” she said, referring to COVID-19.

For more information, visit lsa.umich.edu/pcap.