the artwork of michigan prisoners

For the past 17 years, the University of Michigan has overseen something called the Prison Creative Arts Project. Representatives from the University, as a part of this program, visit Michigan correctional facilities and facilitate workshops in theater, art, dance, music and creative writing. For the past 12 years, they’ve also held an exhibition of artwork by Michigan prisoners. This year’s exhibition, which contains more than 300 pieces of art from over 200 prisoners, opens Tuesday, March 25 at UM’s Duderstadt Center Gallery. (The show runs through April 9.) I had the opportunity to ask three questions of Jason Wright, who curated the show along with Janine Paul and Professor Buzz Alexander.

I heard you visited 15 Michigan prisons to collect the work that’s going to be featured in the show. I’m curious to know what you found similar and dissimilar among the institutions. Were there any surprises?

Actually, I visited 27 prisons this year. To select work for the show, each year PCAP representatives visit 44 of the approximately 50 prisons in Michigan, so I missed some visits this year, mainly in the Upper Peninsula, because of scheduling conflicts. Last year, my first year helping out with the show, I just missed one or two. To select the work for the show, a small group visits the prisons to look at the artwork. Typically, this group includes Rachael Hudak, the administrator for PCAP, and either Buzz Alexander or Janie Paul, the two U of M professors who started the program. In addition, there are often one to three student volunteers who are also participating in the process of selecting the artwork.

As for your question, it’s a really good one, because prisons are all about conformity. But they are also places that are filled with people, and wherever there are people, personalities emerge, both individually and collectively, no matter how much effort is made to erase the characteristics of human uniqueness and individuality.

So, in spite of the fact that many of the prisons, for example, look nearly identical inside and out, they all have a distinct and unique vibe, which comes through in a variety of ways. First, you notice differences in terms of how the people around you behave and respond to you, both in terms of the prisoners as well as the guards. Second, there are all the other institutional differences you notice, sometimes little things, but little things that stand out all the more because of the otherwise sameness. There’s something about conformity that can tend to reveal, perhaps counter-intuitively, difference.

There are also more obvious differences relating to the fact that different prisons have different populations, for example men’s prisons vs. women’s, or different security levels that might be housed in a given facility. Some prisons house level 5 prisoners, which means prisoners that are only allowed out of their cells for an hour a day — that can definitely affect the vibe of a place.

Also, I should probably clarify that when we make an art selection trip, we often visit with the artists in person. Unfortunately this doesn’t happen at all of the prisons, but at many, we get to make direct contact with the artists who have chosen to submit work to us for the show. This makes a huge difference of course, because we are having actual discussions with people, in a relatively relaxed (given the circumstances) setting.

Also, although art classes for the most part don’t exist in prison, some of the prisons have groups of prisoner artists who work together and support each other, either informally, or in a workshop type setting. This can make a really big difference in terms of both the artwork that we will see, as well as the general atmosphere we will experience when meeting with the artists. There are some prisons for example, where the impact of an influential artist can really be seen on others, and there are some prisons where the artists are closer with each other because of their interactions as a group.

This being only my second year doing this, I can’t really say there were many big surprises personally, because my expectations are still rather limited. Stepping into a prison is in many ways like stepping into another world. The circumstances from which this artwork emerges are so intense, and ultimately unreal to someone on the outside like myself, with no direct experience of life as a prisoner, that honestly, the whole experience is surprising. And the artists are also all so unique, and come from such varied places, that when the actual experience of interacting with them comes up against the inevitable flattened preconception we all have in our mind when we think “prisoner” or “criminal,” that every interaction is a bit of a revelation. I guess if I had to pick one thing that was the most surprising to me personally about doing this, it would be how incredibly positive so many of these artists are, and how much of this comes through in my discussions with them. There is a tendency to expect these visits to be depressing, but in fact it’s really uplifting.

Hopefully this doesn’t come across as too salacious, but I’m really interested in hearing about the parameters… Do you, at any point in the selection process, look at a given prisoner’s criminal record to see what he or she has done? And, if so, is there a line that you won’t cross? For example, several local women were killed by a student at Eastern Michigan University in the late 1960’s. He’s now serving a life term here in Michigan. I’m not aware of him being an artist, but it makes me wonder, if he were, whether or not his work would be considered. Similarly, would work be considered if it were violent in nature?

When selecting work for the show, we don’t look at the artists’ criminal records, or discuss with them the circumstances of their incarceration. As I see it, the approach we bring to the selection process is that we interact with the artists as people, rather than as criminals. The exhibit is very much about creating a space where prisoners can be seen as human beings, which is very different from the way society generally sees them, at least in this country.

I mean, even for myself, when thinking of “prisoner,” there is a tendency to think “serial killer” rather than “substance abuser,” even though statistically speaking that is crazy. And even if your concept was “non-violent drug offender,” which might be more accurate, that would still be a flattened generalization that sort of erases the fact that prisoners are also people – they are individuals with unique life stories, families, histories, who happen to have wound up in prison, which is not as hard a thing to happen as many people think.

To answer the part of your question regarding the display of work by a widely known prisoner*, as far as I know, this particular situation has not come up. I think that if it did we would probably show the work, provided it was not deemed to be overly offensive in terms of content. I’m guessing that the decision would ultimately fall on Janie and Buzz, who would be taking into account not only public reaction and continued support for the program, but also the core values of the program, which they take great pains to uphold.

In terms of rejecting work that is violent in nature, we do reject some work on the basis of content. This happens rarely, and is most likely to be due to artwork containing potentially offensive or degrading depictions of women, which can be a very tricky decision to make, and a very difficult line to draw. Other objectionable content might relate to various kinds of racism or hate-speech, which in my experience we rarely see.

As for violent subject matter, it would depend on whether the artwork seemed to be promoting violence, or simply depicting it. Work that addresses violence, both inside and outside of prisons, is artwork that we feel is highly relevant, and work that is very important to exhibit. The subject of violence is obviously a significant one for many of the artists, and something that we feel they should have the ability to address in their work, in responsible ways. We have actually had to take extra measures in order to have access to works which depicted violence that were censored within the facility and we were not initially allowed access to. Prisoners can have their artwork confiscated at any time for a variety of reasons, depictions of violence being one of them, so we often may not get a chance to see work of this nature, and have the opportunity to make our own determination. I know of at least one case this year where an artist had his work destroyed and was put in “the hole” for making a painting that depicted “chaotic scenes that some guards didn’t like.”

(JNC hasn’t submitted any work to the show, although we do visit the prison where he’s located. I heard that he had become something of a guru in prison? Another well-known prisoner, and also an artist, was Dr. K, who didn’t submit work to the show. It might be less likely for a well-known prisoner to be interested in the show given that they have a rare and uncharacteristic public visibility. With only the occasional high profile exception such as those, prisoners are largely anonymous and essentially invisible, often without even friends or family contact on the outside. The opportunity for public visibility that this show provides is of huge importance to the artists.)

A writer in New York put me in touch with Ray Materson several years ago. Ray is from Michigan, but was imprisoned in Connecticut. While there, serving a 25-year sentence, he began doing incredibly detailed embroidery using unraveled sock thread. I was struck by his resourcefulness, and I’ve been curious ever since about the range of media used in prison art. My assumption is that most prisoners are using art supplies sent from the outside. Are there some, however, that make use of non-traditional materials?


Most of the art that we see and that gets put into the show uses fairly traditional materials that the artists order through a small number of approved vendors. We are only able to accept 2-D work for the show (drawings and paintings) and so that’s all we look at, although there are occasional exceptions. I wish that we could exhibit sculpture and other forms of art, but we are limited by the size of the gallery, and the size of the trunk of the car we use to make the visits. Also, all the unsold work has to be sent to the artists’ contacts on the outside, so there’s that logistical factor as well.

However, the inventiveness and resourcefulness evident in the work of an artist such as Ray Materson is also evident in much of the work in the show, and this originality is often characteristic of artwork made in prisons. This may be due in part to logistical factors that lead the artists to improvise techniques, such as limited access to materials and lack of formal training, but there are other perhaps more significant reasons as well. The exertion of a highly unique style and approach to art-making is evident in the work of many well-known self-taught (or “Outsider”) artists, and it is similarly evident in much of the art made by prisoners. This may have its roots in similar needs to create, exert, and express an empowered identity through art, growing out of the unique conditions and realities of the artist’s life. Social marginalization in a variety of forms, as well as personal trauma, is a common factor in the biographies of prisoners, and as well the biographies of folks that typically get thrown into the “Outsider Artist” category.

But, to get back to your question about the inventive use of materials, there is an artist who comes to mind (I apologize that I can’t remember her name), from whom we took some 3-D work, who happens to be missing three limbs, and she makes these beautiful roses using an improvised paper mache technique, in addition to making great drawings and paintings. When I spoke with her this year she described how she used different parts of her body to sculpt the forms, including her lips. Perhaps more amazing is that she’s also one of the friendliest and most upbeat people I’ve ever met.

While on these visits we will also sometimes hear about amazing sculptural work made by prisoners, such as castles carved from bars of soap, or miniature motorcycle replicas with functional components, that definitely leave me wishing I could see more. Most prisons will have a display case in the visitor waiting area that will contain miscellaneous arts and crafts made by prisoners and that are for sale, and while the contents are often landscapes or matchstick jewelry boxes, you never know what you might find there. I recently bought a miniature dune-buggy made from painted paper and paper mache, and, I think, some wood, and a little string, and it is incredible.

Unfortunately, I only had a chance to ask Jason these three questions. Hopefully, it was enough to get you interested. If so, maybe I’ll see you at Tuesday’s opening reception. I have the honor of being one of this year’s judges, so I’ll definitely be there… For those that won’t be able to attend, word is that Michigan PBS stations will soon be airing a production entitled, “Acts of Art: A documentary portrait of the Prison Creative Arts Project.” I’ll post details when I have them.

[The first piece of artwork I’ve included here is entitled “The Creative Lighthouse” by Frankie Lee Davis. I don’t have details on the Super Swamper dune-buggy, but I will add them here when I do.]

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21 Comments

  1. egpenet
    Posted March 22, 2008 at 12:16 am | Permalink

    So, any ol’rapist makes for good art, right?

    Hang it up and look at all that creativity!

    Oh, my god, what talent that murder has! Whould’a thought!

    Mmmmm. Fabulous juxtapositition between the body parts and the visual plane of this work. Quite extravagant use of blood as an archetypal image.

    J.H.C Mark … give us a break.

  2. mark
    Posted March 22, 2008 at 10:15 am | Permalink

    I like outsider art, Ed. I’m drawn toward it. I appreciate the authenticity of it. That doesn’t mean, however, that I’d hang a painting by John Wayne Gacey in my home. I have friends that do, but I wouldn’t. With that said, most of these works are by non-violent offenders. Ray, the fellow that I mentioned, did 15 years for a minor drug charge. Now he’s a functioning member of society. I suspect that most are in similar positions. I agree with you that it’s complicated, however. And I have qualms with it. But I think the good outweighs the bad. Giving these men and women a constructive outlet, I think, is, on the whole, positive.

  3. egpenet
    Posted March 22, 2008 at 10:19 am | Permalink

    Gacey is EXACTLY who I was thinking of …

    But ALSO Kavorkian and a few others.

    We’re too soft on some.

    On the other hand, I’d like to see drugs and prostitution decriminalized so about 500,000 people could come out and get thier lives back on track.

  4. Posted March 22, 2008 at 7:05 pm | Permalink

    I’ll be there–along with many good friends, some of whom spent a good portion of their lives incarcerated. I think it is often forgotten that a huge percentage of the people who are in prison are there because they happen to be the wrong color, the wrong sexual orientation, because they are mentally ill, because they are poor, because they are addicted to a substance or because they are just unlucky. I know one person who spent 15 years long years in prison for writing bad checks. There but for the grace of God go I.

  5. Ol' E Cross
    Posted March 22, 2008 at 7:58 pm | Permalink

    If I had nothing to do for 15-20 years but eat, sleep and work on my art, I bet by the end I’d able to paint something as awesome as this.

    Or, I might just work on my muscles.

  6. egpenet
    Posted March 22, 2008 at 8:36 pm | Permalink

    Heh, heh, heh.

  7. EL
    Posted March 22, 2008 at 10:10 pm | Permalink

    I’ve read enough biographies to know that more than a few of the people who write the great literatures, paint the masterpieces, record the music, and act on both stage and screen commit many of the same crimes as those who are incarcerated. Some spousal abusers make for great authors!

  8. egpenet
    Posted March 22, 2008 at 10:35 pm | Permalink

    What kind of logic is that!?

    We are human, yes. But we don’t commit crimes so we have something to write about! We don’t get drunk so we can conduct recovery workshops. We don’t beat up on the kids to qualify us for counselling jobs.

    Some great and many not-so-great artists and craftspeople and judges and governors and presidents and kings and queens have/had human failings … but those were in addition to whatever talents they had for greatness.

    If you like circus clowns … you can buy a painting of Emmett Kelly or Marcel Marceau for your collection for $150-$1000 by a unknown … or you can snag a Wayne Gacey self-portrait for $10K-20K or more.

    Which would inspire you more, EL?

  9. Ol' E Cross
    Posted March 22, 2008 at 11:37 pm | Permalink

    Okay. I am curious what I’d do with that amount of time and how I’d spend it to try to hold onto my sanity in prison, but I do realize this post isn’t about me.

    I think Lisele and EL are right. Many artists, among other professions, do teeter close to the edge. Artists friends of mine have been an inch away from an unlucky traffic stop to imprisonment. There but for the random grace of God…

    None of the folks I know who’ve served time lacked the talent, artistic, entrepreneurial or otherwise, to do well, legally.

    I very much appreciate that projects like this remind us of the loss of talent and potential of folks behind bars. I very much appreciate the humanity it helps us recognize.

    If I read EgP right, I also share the concern that incarceration can unduly glamorize/glorify the art. I.e., “Wow! This piece was done by a SOCIOPATH!” No doubt, there’s lots of artists of equal/greater talent outside of bars who won’t get the shows/interest.

    From my fairly limited experience, whether or not someone is incarcerated involves varying degrees of luck, opportunity/environment and individual choice.

    If this project makes prisoners’ art seem exceptional or special simply because of where it comes from, it gives me much pause. If it reminds us of the humanity and potential of those locked up, then it should be welcome on of our living room walls. Convicts’ art shouldn’t be valued more because of where it comes from, but it can remind us that convicts don’t have less value than us because of where they are.

    “There but for the grace of God go I,” can make God seem a bit of an asshole. But, I think God can take the hit and, more importantly, it gives us a measure of solidarity/equality. I don’t think we should glorify convicts, but anything that can help us identify with them, to me, is a good thing. When we seem them as equals it makes it easier to affirm or condemn both their art and their actions.

  10. the injector
    Posted March 23, 2008 at 12:38 am | Permalink

    The prisoners who show art in the prisoner art show are simply human–like you; like me.

    A very small percentage of people in prison are sociopaths. Though the media and entities connected to the big business of “justice” in this society would lead you to think differently.

    I urge you all to take a look at the art. Much of it is amazing–it is not over-glorified simply because the folks are behind bars. Rather the art exemplifies what human beings are capable of creating even when they have been cut off from their loved ones and many of the things we neglect (we as in the privileged folks reading this blog) to realize matter in our day to day lives–toilet paper, access to fresh, healthy food, sanitary supplies, proper mental health care, meaningful daily activities, access to technology, (i could go on and on).

    This art show demonstrates people trying to make meaning out of their current conditions–conditions that ride on the wave of what we have created to deal with social difficulties/problems/harms–a mass prison industry. The thing I love most about the art show is its dedication to focusing on the humanity of the people involved and its commitment to avoiding the sensationalizing that is connected to “crime” in this culture.

    Go see it. Listen to the people involved in the show and the events connected to it.

  11. abbyc
    Posted March 23, 2008 at 9:48 am | Permalink

    thanks for the very interesting interview, mark! I have a colleague at EMU who runs a program for college classes inside local women’s prisons, and one of the regular posters on this blog teaches in that program on a volunteer basis. Not sure how public she wants to be, but I could certainly get people in touch with her if they have experience enough to teach a university class and are willing to do so for free. She has a grant to cover the materials, but nothing to pay the teachers. Having some college credits to start with does wonders to prevent recidivism (or relapse to addiction) once women are free from prison. There was a panel on this program at the Women’s Studies conference at EMU last weekend, and one of the teachers said that most of her students are women who suffer from severe domestic abuse outside the prison (or forced prostitution from which they little profit), who need a reprieve from that violent and chaotic world, and who find prison in some ways less imprisoning than the world outside, supposing their stay is not long and they can get back on their feet once free. The current model of the prison as a place where one sits in solitude beating oneself up with a spontaneously generated sadistic policeman (in lieu of the state having to honestly torture a person in the open for crimes that all condemn collectively, per Foucault) is defunct, especially when the state continues to punish people for behaviors that are more properly speaking illnesses (like addition) than crimes. The state spends far more money imprisoning people, esp. minorities, than it does educating its citizens, and perhaps with a little more education that imprisonment would be unnecessary. In short, I am all for more creativity on the part of prisoners, whatever violent crimes they have committed in the past. Extreme compulsions for violence cannot be magically zapped away, but they can be rechanneled, expressed virtually rather than physically.

    ps. I am curious who this murderous 1960s EMU student serial killer is–most of the EMU students in these cases that I am aware of have been the victims of crime, barring the yet unconvicted Taylor.

  12. Rob
    Posted March 23, 2008 at 10:30 am | Permalink

    abbyc– You’re wanting to know about John Norman Collins, subject of the best selling “true crime” story “The Michigan Murders”… Though I forget the author & am to lazy to google it ;)…

  13. mark
    Posted March 23, 2008 at 11:27 am | Permalink

    There’s also a book by the niece of one of his victims. I think it’s called “The Red Parts,” or something like that. I believe I’ve posted about it here in the past. I’ll look for the link.

  14. mark
    Posted March 23, 2008 at 11:31 am | Permalink

    Here’s the post.

    The woman murdered, Jane Mixer, was the daughter of someone I know through a friend in New Jersey. It’s a small and often ugly world.

  15. abbyc
    Posted March 23, 2008 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

    thanx again, mark–I had been aware that Chapman (here’s the Wiki)was a student, but I still had somehow conveniently repressed that fact. Doesn’t look much like a serial murderer in the pic, tho’ not so very sweetly either. Anyway, hopefully EMU has been jinxed with enough of these murderers in a row to have a pass on having any other murderers in our midst in the future.

  16. mark
    Posted March 23, 2008 at 6:31 pm | Permalink

    One of these days, I’ll see if a woman I know here in town will agree to be interviewed about Collins, a man she knew while at EMU. It’s an interesting story. I don’t know that she’d want to tell it publicly though. Maybe she’d agree to do it anonymously.

  17. egpenet
    Posted March 23, 2008 at 7:06 pm | Permalink

    I know someonme who might tell her story about John Norman Collins.

  18. Posted March 23, 2008 at 9:14 pm | Permalink

    I am, as ever, very interested in JNC. I was bonding with Barry about it the other night, while discussing “Art Racks,” and he suggested one shaped like a motorcycle at the former wig shop–site where JNC picked up his final victim (the current What Is That gallery). I thought this was actually not a bad idea. I would hate for history-based art to focus only on the “charming” history. Yet I wouldn’t want it all to be sensational either.

    Working for the Michigan Criminal Justice project of the AFSC, I can tell you that life in Michigan’s prisons is dangerous, miserable, unhealthy and soul-destroying. Art could be seen as a saving grace, which might help people survive, rather than a past time to use up all of the prisoner’s leisure time.

    Just one anecdote: in prison, you NEVER receive fresh food of any kind — no broccoli, no salad, no fresh fruit, no asparagus — imagine YEARS without fresh food. So, a few years ago, the women in Scott decided to plant a garden, with permission. After a season of hard work, the prison guards stole their vegetables. I can’t imagine the sense of outrage and futility this must have caused in these women. One story of hundreds I have heard.

  19. Meta
    Posted March 24, 2008 at 11:23 am | Permalink

    Thought you might find this article on SuperMax prisons of interest:

    http://www.alternet.org/rights/80440/

  20. SuziQ
    Posted September 1, 2010 at 12:58 am | Permalink

    I also am very interested in JNC-we happen to share the same birthday of June 17! Not sure how I feel about that! The name of the author who wrote “The Michigan Murders” is Edward Keyes. A new edition will be released soo, with new prologue and afterward written by two true crime witers. There is also an excelent book written by Earl James, who headed up the state police task force who caught and convicted Collins. I found out a few new things I didn’t know. I read that Collins has become something of a guru at marquette, where he is imprisoned. I can’t imagine guru who to, unless it would be to fellow psychopaths. Interesting, about a month ago I met a guy who had been at Marquette with JNC, he was also a Level V and was his handball partner. He said he is very nice, but says he is very dangerous. Said he doesn’t think like other people and you don’t see it until you get to know him. He also said he was glad he is up in the UP, and not down here in SW Lower Michigan, where i live-also where this guy lives too. There is also a Youtube video of a TV show JNC appeared on, way back in 1988-a series of five videos. He is a very skilled liar, charming and likeable, but very dangerous, I agree. I would like to see an interview with the woman who knew JNC in college-that would be most intereresting.

  21. SuziQ
    Posted September 1, 2010 at 1:00 am | Permalink

    Also, JNC did not murder Jane Mixer-that was proved in 2005, with gary Lieterman convicted on that one.

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