“When the prison gates slam behind an inmate, he does not lose his human quality; his mind does not become closed to ideas; his intellect does not cease to feed on a free and open interchange of opinions; his yearning for self-respect does not end; nor his quest for self-realization concluded…” ~ U. S Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, Procunier v. Martinez (1974).
Walking into Duderstadt Gallery is like walking into the classroom of a long-time art teacher who has never been able to find it in his or her heart to remove the works of past loved and brilliant students from the space. Bathed in afternoon light, every inch of wall is dripping in acrylic and pen. Central tables and podiums are covered with beads and wire, metal work and weaving. Bins on the floor hold spill-over canvases.
It’s five o’clock on a Monday and I am not alone. In fact, I am surprised by the number of people milling about here on North Campus beside me and my trusty photographer —a woman explains to her three-year-old the concept of a collage, an elderly couple consider purchasing a chessboard layered with embroidery thread, two gallery attendants buzz around answering questions about story and price.
A sign on the wall offers the above quote from Justice Marshall and explains that the sensory overload I am experiencing is the result of 658 works by 582 different artists from Michigan’s 28 prisons. The quote in conjunction with the surreal nature of these numbers inform how I move about the space. There’s no rhyme or reason to the physical layout of the works. Works by the same artist are not grouped together and medium is a consistent surprise.
I am excited to recognize the style of one of the artists in two places. A Millet like attention to paint application and a somber blurring of form attracts me to Oliger Merko’s painting “Imaginary Celo.” Merko’s work captures the lilting sounds of the instrument in image. Caroline, a lovely and knowledgeable gallery assistant who’s been involved in PCAP since her sophomore year, explains that Merko is the student of Martin Vargas, another artist in the exhibition, who was just recently released. His work “Painting His Way Home” hangs on an opposite wall.
Many of the artists in the exhibition are interconnected in similar, informal mentor apprentice relationships. Some have attended facilitated workshops, but more have consistently pursued their craft on their own. (Read more about PCAP’s mission, programs, and workshops here). Many of the works have an air of technical realism, prioritizing linear form. Merko’s work reveals a detail image of his real home. Some artists generate revenue by giving their talent over to portraiture. Scattered throughout the space you can find studies of Michael Jackson, Obama, Tupac, Albert Einstein, and family photographs.
There are themes of tattooing and reunion, whimsy and religion. Many works double as political commentary. A heart-retching number of clocks pounds an inescapable theme of ticking time into the exhibit.
The materials are just as intriguing and important as the works themselves—a Detroit novelty clock made with floor sealant, a strange little sculpture made of bread, coffee, floor sealer and modge podge.
The exhibit is as interactive as it is expansive. A guest book on a podium by the door offers the chance to respond directly to the artists and their work. After the exhibit’s close in April, every artist will get a hard copy of the full book. Three days after opening, the book is already half full. A young girl takes up half a page with a simple message in big block letters: JOSHUA FOONCE I LOVE YOUR HORSE. Caroline points out the artist RIK’s stand out watercolor “East Meets West” on a nearby wall. She explains that during last years exhibit a visitor discovered and cracked the code embedded in the work. The visitor addressed the artist in the guest book in the artist’s own code. This year RIK hopes the visitor will be back to crack it again.
On another table by the entrance is a binder of artists’ statements. The statement numbers correspond to the number beside the work on the wall. I tried working backwards: finding a statement and then searching for the painting. I flipped to Keldrick Brown’s statement, an image of a skull and bones surrounded by the words “no future die alone.” I was taken with the corresponding image: “Et in Arcadia Ego,” a new-age like scene of an androgynous body erupting into flame surrounded by poetry—words that seem to expand on the artist’s statement itself.
Other statements attach titles to stories: Paul Kendrickson writes about his work “Meg and Kids:” “Meg and Kids” working in the garden here at LRF. I caught and raised Meg a (field mouse) she was around three months old when I got her and I didn’t want to see her hurt. I trained her to run on a wheel while I built and even potty trained her. I kept her in a big tub with sod. I built a house a potty box and the wheel just like in my painting. I had her for three years and all the inmates and staff loved Meg. My fellow inmates would call me Meg’s dad.”
The art, of course, breathes in its own space. However, for a full exhibit experience, it seems an obligation to also pair each work with the stories of the artists themselves. Caroline directs my attention to a painting she bought herself: a delicate acrylic by Curtis Dawkins. She explains that Dawkins, one of the more high profile artists of the exhibit, is currently engaged in a lawsuit with the State of Michigan. Serving a life sentence without parole, Dawkins made money off a book deal with Scribner, an associate print house of Simon & Schuster, while behind bars. While Dawkins seeks to use the money to help fund the education of his three children, the State wants to claim 90% to offset the cost of Dawkins’ imprisonment. Find more information here: NYTimes
This exhibit is tactile and hard-hitting, tangible evidence of the persistence and infallible presence of the artistic mind and body. It’s more like stepping into an echo chamber than a gallery (though many works would fit in seamlessly at UMMA). If you’re anything like me, you’ll have to visit three more times or sit down on the bench by the window for a while in order to let all the visuals and sounds mix and flow through you: the explosive use of color and medium, the words, the names, the profiles, the loud individual voices that spill out from the cardboard canvases.
Feature image: “Time to Bloom” Susan Brown, Beads & Chipboard, $20.
Location: Duderstadt Center (Media Union)
Exhibition open March 21 through April 4.
Closed Sunday, April 1.