Prison artwork in person again after pandemic limits


The University of Michigan Prison Creative Arts Project presents the 26th annual Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners, the largest exhibition in the world of its kind.

The free, public exhibition highlights the work of 392 artists from 26 state correctional facilities in Michigan. It features 714 paintings, drawings and three-dimensional works.

After two years of not being able to meet the artists in person, PCAP staff and volunteers had strong reactions to reconnecting with them. The 2020 show was canceled, and last year’s exhibition was virtual.

“There was no greater joy I experienced this year than visiting artists in prison,” said PCAP Director Nora Krinitsky. “Despite everything, PCAP artists have persevered, and they continue to create works of great ingenuity, nuance, thoughtfulness and playfulness. I’m humbled by it.”

“War Cry,” by James Tinker, construction paper.

For Krinitsky, art selection trips to each facility are at the heart of the exhibition because this is when powerful dialogue happens between artists and volunteers.

U-M graduate Emily Cole was among the group of U-M students, staff, faculty, community members and local artists who traveled to all 26 participating prisons in Michigan in search of the best works of art created.

“I learned a great deal about what inspires their work, such as their family, passions outside of art, and the goals that they have set for themselves in the future,” Cole said.

The show features diversity of both artists and artistic choices. Artists range from 18 to 80 years old, men and women from across the state with diverse racial, ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. Most pieces are for sale, with proceeds going directly to the artists.

Last year, almost half of the 823 pieces were sold, generating $28,945 in just two weeks. There is a broad array of artistic media and subject matter, including landscapes, portraits, prison scenes and political statements.

“Many artists chose to respond visually to several topics that currently dominate the news and public discourse,” said curator Charlie Michaels. “They include emotional and thoughtful reflections on isolation and COVID-19, on the American political landscape, and personal perspectives on race and the Black Lives Matter movement.”

"Living Off the Grid in Montana," by Kimmy, mixed media
“Living Off the Grid in Montana,” by Kimmy, mixed media.

Senior curator Janie Paul started the annual exhibition in 1996 with her husband and PCAP founder, Buzz Alexander. Paul, a community-based artist and U-M professor emerita whose primary focus is the capacity of visual meaning-creation as a vehicle for social change, has brought art from prisons across the state to campus each year.

Paul and Alexander traveled to 16 prisons in Michigan to collect art for the first show in 1996.

“We were just mind-blown by the work,” Paul said. “We discovered it was such an important event both for the artists inside and for the community. It brought us all together.”

The exhibition is at the Duderstadt Gallery on North Campus from March 22-April 5. Gallery hours are noon-6 p.m. Sunday and Monday, and 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.

The opening celebration begins at 6:30 p.m. March 22. It features speakers from U-M and the Michigan Department of Corrections, artists from previous exhibitions and a performance by the U-M Out of the Blue choir.


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