On Wednesday, I journeyed to North Campus for the Prison Creative Arts Project’s annual exhibition. This collection was curated from art submitted by prisoners within facilities across Michigan. This exhibit is a form of self representation from a group that lives on the fringes of our society and is so frequently misrepresented. All of the supplies used to create each piece were paid for by the artist with their wages from jobs they held within the prison; most wages for these jobs is far below the minimum wage.
Walking around the room, where white walls were plastered with art of every type and variety- including sculpture and 3D models- I was struck by the range of emotions conveyed through this art. Instead of being curated around a single theme or emotion, this exhibit seemed to strive to provide insight into the whole lived experience of life behind bars. Just as PCAP strives to encourage this population to be seen as whole people; prisoners and artists, instead of prisoners or artists- but first as people.
One painting that stayed with me was “The Lifer- A Self Portrait” by Martin Vargas. A simple black and white drawing, you can feel the frustration and endlessness of the pathways through its vivid use of shading. Objects, obstacles, twists and turns keep one from being able to see what is a dead end and what connects. It is a mesmerizing piece.
Just as the materials to create the work was paid for by the artists themselves, with every painting sold during this exhibit the artist receives the money for their work.. If a painting was not sold, artists can specify that it be sent to someone, perhaps a family member or loved one. It was encouraging to see how many red sold dots the painting had as I walked around. Prison Creative Arts Project 22nd Annual Exhibition has created a space where wonderful, otherwise unseen, works have a platform to be showcased in the art world.