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U-M site of nation's largest prisoner art exhibit

  • Contact Frank Provenzano
ANN ARBOR, Mich.—To a large and growing following, the Annual Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners sheds light on the talents to be found behind prison walls and encourages the public to think more complexly about the massive incarceration that characterizes the nation and state.

The 12th Annual Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners, presented by the Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP) at the University of Michigan, features works by more than 220 men and women serving sentences in Michigan prisons.

The exhibition is curated by Buzz Alexander, U-M professor of English and founder of PCAP, along with Janie Paul, U-M professor of art, and Jason Wright, U-M lecturer. The exhibition runs from March 27-April 11 at the Duderstadt Center Gallery, 2281 Bonisteel Blvd. on U-M's North Campus.

Last year, more than 3,770 people came to the exhibit. More are expected this year, making the annual exhibition not only the largest known display of prisoners'creative work, but likely the most well attended in the U.S.

Along with the two-week exhibit, eight educational events exploring a range of prison-related issues will be held.

Beyond presenting compelling works of art created in a variety of mediums, this year's exhibit also offers a timely venue for a discussion about alternative ways to address the state's overcrowded prisons.

The public debate about state prison funding has grown in urgency with Gov. Jennifer Granholm's proposal in February to help balance Michigan's budget by reducing Michigan's prison population.

As Granholm and the state Legislature grapple with the budget, organizers of the two-week exhibit believe that seeing first-hand the transformative power of artistic expression could serve as a segue for a prison reform discussion, fueling debate about effective programs which aid prisoners in returning to society with usable skills and self-confidence.

"Among our main goals is to break stereotypes and to foster a dialogue between those who are incarcerated and the community," Alexander said. "Art is a tool to connect and to understand on many levels the hearts and minds of those living in Michigan prisons as well as our own. Prisoners are citizens, we want them to come home as strong individuals and we need to receive them in ways that are welcoming and constructive."

On the most basic human level, the creative works reflect the passion for survival of those incarcerated, waiting for the day when they are free. While the exhibit reflects a range of styles and talent, the strikingly common characteristic is how the prisoners turn to art as way to cope and express themselves.

"Our intent is to give prisoners a choice to express themselves as creative people," said co-curator Paul. "From year to year, we've seen how the exhibit fosters a dialogue about how to treat people more humanely and how prisoners must find ways to build positive identities and self-esteem.

"Art is a basic human need and something that everyone should have access to," she said. "Some people are excluded from having that experience because our educational system doesn't provide it or because they are marginalized in some way."

PCAP, founded in 1990, is part of the Michigan Prisoner Reentry Initiative, which aims to collaborate with community-based organizations to assist with prisoners' transition and reintegration in the community.

Through workshops, offering a range of resources about art education and mentoring, PCAP collaborates with prisoners in the arts and provides a space for them to develop their artistic skills.

To date, PCAP has welcomed men and women from Michigan's prisons into hundreds of collaborative workshops in theater, creative writing, art, dance, music and video, each culminating in a final performance, reading or exhibit.

Among PCAP's programs are the Portfolio and Linkage projects.

The Portfolio Project works one on one with incarcerated youth and adults to help them prepare portfolios of their art and creative writing for presentation to parole boards, judges, schools, and employers when they return home.

The Linkage Project links incarcerated youth and adult artists, writers, musicians, actors, and dancers across the state with a community arts mentor upon their release from prison or a juvenile facility, supporting them as they make the transition back into the community.

Exhibit hours: 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday; and, 12 p.m.-6 p.m. Sunday and Monday.

For more information on Prison Creative Arts Project, visit


March 27
Opening Reception
Join the Prison Creative Arts Project as we celebrate the opening of the 12th Annual Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners. Artists from past exhibitions, now home from prison, and Curators Buzz Alexander, Janie Paul, and Jason Wright, will address visitors to the gallery at 6:15 p.m. Free and open to the public.
5:30-8:00 p.m., Duderstadt Center Gallery, 2281 Bonisteel Blvd., Ann Arbor MI

March 28
Books Not Bars: Hope for Incarcerated Youth
Zachary Norris, Field Director for the innovative "Books Not Bars" campaign at the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in California, will speak about the challenges incarcerated youth and their families face today. Norris will also discuss his vision for educational, community-based solutions to incarceration.
7:30 p.m., Michigan Union, Anderson D Room, 530 S. State St.

March 30
The Farm: Life Inside Angola Prison
Join us for a screening of this powerful, Emmy awarding winning documentary, which follows the lives of six prisoners at the maximum security Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, as they struggle for their dignity and freedom against the brutality of the criminal justice system. Please join us for a discussion following the screening with a special guest speaker.
5 p.m., Michigan Theater, 603 E. Liberty St.

March 31
Staying Connected: Families of the Incarcerated Speak Out
Join us as family members and friends of the incarcerated discuss the impact of having a loved one in prison. Panelists will share their personal stories, challenges, and triumphs in an open dialogue followed by a question and answer period.
2 p.m., 126 East Quad, 701 E. University Ave.

April 1
Art Speaks: A Discussion with Artists from the Annual Exhibition
University of Michigan Professor and artist, Janie Paul, will welcome exhibiting artists from previous shows to the gallery for a panel discussion about creating art in prison.
3 p.m., Duderstadt Center Gallery, 2281 Bonisteel Blvd.

April 3
The New Asylums: Mental Health Crisis Behind Bars
Join us for a screening of "The New Asylums," a PBS documentary which explores the current mental health crisis in Ohio prisons and the progressive measures taken to confront the problems facing this population. A panel discussion with mental health experts follows.
6 p.m., Angell Hall, Room 3222, 435 S. State St.

April 4
Torture in America's Prisons
Bobby Dellelo, member of the American Friends Service Committee's STOPMAX Campaign to end prison isolation and related forms of torture, will discuss his personal experiences in solitary confinement and segregation's devastating effects on America's prisoners and communities.
7 p.m., Michigan League, Kalamazoo Room, 911 N. University Ave.

April 5
From Missions to Maximum Security: The Prison Industrial Complex in Indigenous California
Activist and advocate for incarcerated Native people, Stormy Ogden, will discuss how racism, social control, and profit contribute to the current imprisonment of Native people. She will also share her personal experiences of incarceration in the California prison system.
7:30 p.m., Michigan Union, Pendleton Room, 530 S. State St.

April 10
The Practice of Freedom in the South
Join Lisa Kung, Director of the Southern Center for Human Rights, as she discusses how Amdominant form of social control in the South.erica's criminal justice system's sprawling network of prisons, jails and detentions centers became a strategy for replacing slavery as the
7:30 p.m., Michigan League, Michigan Room, 911 N. University Ave.

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