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Posted on Sun, Mar 21, 2010 : 5:57 a.m.

Creativity behind bars: 20 years of the Prison Creative Arts Project

By Jennifer Eberbach


"Why My Baby?" by Dara Ket

After 20 years at it, the Prison Creative Arts Project has gradually grown into a social-justice and arts program that has affected the lives of many incarcerated adults, youths living in juvenile facilities, and grade school students in Michigan, as well as their families and loved ones.

PCAP is celebrating its 20th birthday with a full schedule of events, which includes the 15th annual Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners and a PCAP Symposium event series, all happening from March 23 to April 7.

PCAP founder Buzz Alexander planted the seeds for this ambitious program back in 1990, when the University of Michigan English professor first began taking students into prisons, juvenile facilities and schools in order to facilitate creative workshops. Since then, Alexander has consistently incorporated creative writing, theater and other arts workshops into his teaching curriculum, and he now offers 3 different courses that require students to plan workshops or work 1-on-1 with incarcerated individuals and under-served schoolchildren.

“The way we talk about our work is that we open creative spaces where creative spaces don’t exist,” Alexander says.

School of Art & Design Associate Professor Janie Paul arrived at U-M in 1995 and she was inspired to follow Alexander’s lead, taking her students into correctional facilities and schools to facilitate visual art workshops. The next year, PCAP’s 1st installment of the annual Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners was met with more public interest than she had ever expected, according to the co-curator. Paul, who is co-curating the show with Alexander and Jason Wright, is pleased that the exhibit has grown over the years, and she reports that this year’s show will feature over 300 artworks by more than 200 artists.

The 15th Annual Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners will display artworks that cover a wide range of subject matter and personal styles. A number of former inmates who contributed works to the show will speak at the opening reception, scheduled for March 23, from 5:30-8 p.m. at the Duderstadt Center Gallery on North Campus.

Paul reports that exhibit visitors will find everything from landscapes and portraiture, to works commemorating celebrities like Michael Jackson, to works inspired by the prisoners’ personal stories, thoughts and dreams, and much more. Last year, PCAP added a suggested theme to the exhibit. This year's theme gave artists the option to respond to the topic of “the economy,” she reports.

During the first few years of the exhibit, Paul remembers that some prisoners were reluctant to go too far out on a limb with their art. “I wrote a letter to the prisons that included a passage that basically gave them permission and encouraged them to do things that were original, strange, haunting, weird or idiosyncratic,” if they so desired. This year’s exhibition is “diverse” and shows how “many of them have really grown as artists. Many are as good as professional artists,” Paul explains.

Alexander and Paul have witnessed how PCAP programs benefit the lives of incarcerated people in many different ways. For instance, Alexander explains that prisoners “form a community” around group activities, especially during his students’ highly collaborative theater workshops. Whether prisoners are feeling challenged by being separated from their families and friends, or whether they have never known a healthy family life, the workshops create a social support system. “Once you’ve had a family, you know that it is something you want to find again. It makes you think about the way you want to live,” he explains.

Alexander notices that creative writing is a more solitary activity; however, the endeavor benefits PCAP participants in a number of ways. “When you write with any kind of care, you learn what you are thinking. For many writers, there is a real need to find a creative manner of expression where they can understand themselves better,” he says. In the case of the theater workshops, Alexander says that the vast majority of the plays are not about life in prison. But in the case of creative writers, a greater percentage explore their conditions and experience being incarcerated. Paul agrees with Alexander that the workshops “aren’t art therapy, but art (and other kinds of creative expression) can be therapeutic for anyone.”

The PCAP recently began publishing a selection of poetry, prose and fiction written by Michigan prisoners. A book release for the new "Michigan Review of Prisoner Creative Writing" will be held at the Michigan League’s Vandenberg Room, on March 25, beginning at 7 p.m. Recently released writers will read pieces that they contributed to the book.

Paul adds that public celebrations, such as the Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners and the "Michigan Review of Prisoner Creative Writing," give them something they can be proud of, and in some cases this “changes people’s relationships with their families,” she says. Many of the artists’ family members and friends attend the exhibition. Paul has been struck by some of their strong emotional responses to seeing their loved one’s work being displayed in the gallery space. “They are really moved by it,” she says. The co-curators also agree that the general public’s encounter with the artworks in the show has the power to challenge stereotypes and breakdown stigmas related to prisoners and incarceration.

PCAP also works closely with the Michigan Prisoner ReEntry Initiative, which provides programs and services to people who are returning to free society. Their Portfolio Project helps artists and creative writers to prepare a portfolio that they can show to judges, parole boards, school teachers and employers. The Linkage Project connects individuals with community arts mentors who continue to encourage their creative pursuits after they get out of jail.

“We know in some cases, when a youth is showing his portfolio to a judge, they go home earlier. Then they can show it to their teachers. It’s something they are proud of. The more important, but less tangible thing is that you’ve got pride in yourself as an artist or a writer. You have something you can carry around and show people with pride and self-respect. You are gaining job seeking skills and confidence skills,” Alexander says.

Beyond the PCAP’s impact on individuals, the program also asks socially relevant questions about the state of prisons in the United States. “We get very involved in trying to figure out why we have massive incarceration in this country. We are the most incarcerated nation in the world,” Alexander says. Aside from taking his students into facilities to run workshops, his classes also include intensive “historical, sociological and economic analysis,” and a heavy workload tailored for serious students.

The PCAP’s Symposium will feature numerous panels and discussions, which feature former inmates, nationwide practitioners working in prison arts programming across the country, and a number of PCAP associates — former students who joined the program after graduating. One of the highlights of the symposium is a keynote speech by national expert Marc Mauer, who directs The Sentencing Project, on March 26 from 7:30-9 p.m., in Forum Hall at Palmer Commons.

The PCAP’s 20th anniversary celebration also includes a documentary film screening of “Concrete, Steel, & Paint,” at the Michigan Theater, on March 31st from 7-9 p.m. Co-producers Cindy Burstein and Tony Heriza will be there for some Q & A after the film. Tickets are $8.

Jennifer Eberbach is a free-lance writer who covers art for

For a full schedule of receptions, panels and discussions, as well as more information on the Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners, please refer to the PCAP news page.


Dr. I. Emsayin

Sun, Mar 21, 2010 : 5:37 p.m.

Congratulations to Buzz Alexander and all the folks who have contributed to and benefited from this program. I hope locals will drop in for the exhibit and go to the panels during the week. Lots of activities to choose from. The art is amazing and I've bought pieces over the years.