Stateside
3:39 pm
Mon March 18, 2013

Art from behind bars

On March 19, the 18th Annual Exhibition of Art by Michigan prisoners will open at the Duderstadt Center on the North Campus of the University of Michigan.

The exhibition is a extension of the Prison Creative Arts Project spearheaded by University of Michigan Professor Buzz Alexander and is the largest exhibition of prisoner art in the country, containing some 300 works by over 200 artists.

Founded in 1990, PCAP "facilitates the opportunity to create original works of art in correctional facilities, urban high schools, and communities across the state of Michigan."

The project is affiliated with the Department of English Language and Literature, Alexander's department.

"When we come in (to prisons) we are in awe and we bring respect to the artists," Alexander said. "This year there are 428 works of art in the show that prisoners have been preparing for all year."

Alexander noted that the exhibition is a way for the artists to gain visibility. One artist talked with a PCAP facilitator about how it's a bridge that connects her to the outside world.

For some artists, the exhibition has saved lives.

"Several artists have told us they have not committed suicide because of the show," Alexander said.

This year, PCAP members traveled to 28 prisons within a 150 mile radius of the University of Michigan.

Alexander offers a range of classes in which students explore texts that address the prison system in the United States. More importantly, students facilitate workshops in juvenile centers, prisons, high schools, and other underserved communities surrounding the Ann Arbor and Detroit area.

Typically working in pairs, students collaborate with one another to guide and participate in writing workshops, visual art workshops and theater productions. Every week, students work with participants for one-and-a-half to two hours in workshops at their site. 

Over the years, students in English 310: Discourse and Society - The Cody/Crockett High School Project, and English 319: Theater and Social Change have facilitated and acted in hundreds of plays and produced writing anthologies as final products for each workshop. When possible, guests attend the final workshop in which participants perform the plays they have created or read excerpts from the anthology they created.

The Prison Creative Arts Project is also home to the Linkage Project, a project which "affirms the creativity of adults and youth returning from incarceration." Members of the Linkage Project have participated in past PCAP workshops.

Brent Barth served 40 months in Saginaw's correctional facility and is a member of the Linkage Project.

"[The Linkage Project] gives you an opportunity to take your art to galleries and go to workshops and classes and learn more," Barth said. "They give you places to go so you can advance all these wonderful things you learned in prison."

For Barth, being able to express himself artistically while in prison was invaluable.

"It gave me an opportunity to go places and see people and visit beaches and mountains. Those wer ethe places that I painted a lot. I would paint the Teton mountains of Wyoming and the beaches of Florida I used to visit with my family," Barth said.

One day while in prison, Barth was approached by another inmate while he was painting the prison's garden. The man asked Barth if he would teach him how to paint, and Barth agreed. One thing led to another, and Barth ended up teaching  three hour watercolor classes to 30 men in the prison cafeteria.

"The amazing thing is that...there's a ton of this art that never made it to the exhibit that's just as good if not better than anything I've ever produced," Barth said.

Barth hopes that the exhibition will provide something more than a link for artists in prison. In addition to a beautiful art exhibit, Barth believes that people outside of prison  need to better understand the prisoners who have created the pieces they're viewing.

"We're real people. People think 'Oh, they're convicted felons' and 'Oh, they're bad people' but that's not the case at all. Not to make light of their mistakes, but they're people who have feelings and they're just...real."

To listen to the full audio, click the link above.

- Lucy Perkins, Michigan Radio Newsroom