The ?19th Annual Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners,? which ran from March 25 through April 9, displayed its largest number of pieces of art by the incarcerated ever this year on the University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The exhibit is not only the largest exhibition of its kind in the nation, but the largest in the entire world.
There were 511 pieces of art in the show this year, according to Charlie Michaels, one of the curators of the Annual Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners.
?Last year was also our biggest ever, at the time, with 423 (pieces of art),? said Michaels, ?but we’ve exceeded that number by quite a bit this year.?
Michaels also works as a Lecturer and Coordinator of the Detroit Connections program at the Stamps School of Art and Design, a program though which University of Michigan students can collaborate on project with youth in Detroit schools and community organizations.
In 1990, the Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP), which sponsors the annual art exhibit ever year, was founded. PCAP is a University of Michigan-based organization of students, faculty, and community members who collaborate with Michigan prisoners, juveniles, and urban high school students to create original artistic expression. In 1995, the first exhibit of prisoner art exhibit was held in Ann Arbor. And, it has been held continuously every year ever since. Next year will be the 20th annual art exhibit.
?The artists are all currently incarcerated in one of the many Michigan Department of Corrections facilities all over the state, but they are from all over,? said Michaels. ?Many are from Michigan and grew up in the state. But there are also artists that are from outside Michigan and outside of the country. An artist’s ties to their home, whether Michigan or not, is a theme that comes up in the work a lot.?
PCAP offers workshops run by its members in prisons that are in and around southeast Michigan, but they travel as far as the Keweenaw Peninsula in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to collect work for the exhibition from around 30 facilities.
Michaels stated that usually around 3,000 people attend the exhibit each year.
?Many spend hours in the gallery looking carefully at everything, and others return multiple times over the course of the show,? said Michaels. ?The sheer number of works, but also the depth, breadth, and emotional intensity of much of the work means that views spend a lot of time in the gallery.?
Michaels said despite these artists being branded solely as ?criminals? by society, their artwork speaks of their inalienable right to dignity as human beings.
?Yes, artists in the show have either done something wrong or ended up in a situation that somehow caused their incarceration,? concedes Michael. ?But everyone has done something wrong in his or her life at some point. And every person, because they are human, deserves to be treated with respect for their humanity.?
Michaels has even talked with many of the artists.
?I have spoken with artists who recognize that they were on a destructive path prior to coming to prison and cite their dedication to their artwork as a vehicle for shifting that path in a positive direction,? said Michaels.
The artwork gives the prisoners hope.
?Prisons, in many ways, are set up to remove any trace of humanity or individuality from a person,? said Michaels. ?When you are stripped of your identity and of the simple things that make you human, there is not very much room from growth and change. Many artist I have talked with have found that making artwork is one of the only ways they are able to grow as people, to express their individuality, and to find a place of solace that keeps them thinking and acting positively.?
There are sustainable benefits for the artists as well.
?Additionally, for many of the artists, selling their work at the annual art exhibition is the only way that they are able to support themselves through the year in purchasing art supplies, sending money home to their families, or purchasing necessities without relying on someone on the outside,? said Michaels. ?It’s just another way that through artwork a person in prison can have some agency and ability as an individual.?
Michaels said that debunking stereotypes about people who are incarcerated is also important.
?I’ve been asked before if I am scared to go inside the prisons or if the people we meet inside are scary or intimidating or if I feel in danger and the answer is always no,? said Michaels. ?I think people’s misconceptions of prisoners is that they are all terrifying and dangerous, as they are often portrayed in the media. Talking with the artists inside the prisons we visit, I have had some of the most interesting and meaningful conversations about artwork, about life, about family, politics, dreams, and the things that connect us as human beings.?
The artwork itself also contributing to combating misconceptions about prisoners.
?See in a broad way, this is what the artwork in the show is about. It’s about the human experience, all of the emotions and fears and desires and dreams we share as humans and that encompasses both positive and negative things–things that make us happy and things that scare us,? said Michaels. ?The work in the exhibition can be a great teaching tool for people who have misconceptions about prisoners because the artwork is humanizing. It very clearly conveys to views that incarcerated people are also human beings and that as human beings, the things that we have in common are greater than the things that separate us.”
The exhibit and other artistic pursuits is made possible through PCAP, working for 23 years.?Its mission is ?to collaborate with incarcerated adults, incarcerated youth, urban youth, and the formerly incarcerated to strengthen our community through creative expression.?