REVIEW: PCAP 23rd Annual Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners

“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.

“The Artistic Drive Personified” Bryan Picken, Cardboard.

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.

“Imaginary Cello” Oliger Merko, Oil, $215

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.

“Kings:” T. Norris-Bey, Acrylic, $125

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.

“Erasures” Yurself Quavo, Pastel & Pencil, $135.

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.

“Tiger Time” Dwan Chatman, Mixed, $425

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.

“Ostean Glasses” Kevin A. Craig, Coffee Brown $665.
“Everybody Has A Time” Clay Chapman, bread, coffee, floor sealer, modge podge, $40.


“East Meets West” RIK, Pen & Watercolor, $365.

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.

Keldrick Brown’s artist statement.
“Et in Arcadia Ego” Keldrick Brown.

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.”

“Paradise” Curtis Dawkins, Acrylic, $125.

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)

Gallery Dates/Hours:

Exhibition open March 21 through April 4.

Sunday-Monday, 12pm-6pm
Tuesday-Saturday, 10am-7pm
Closed Sunday, April 1.

Preview: PCAP 23rd Annual Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners

The Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP) will hold the opening for its 23d Annual Exhibition tonight. The exhibit is the result of a year of collaboration between University of Michigan faculty, staff and students and incarcerated inmates across the state.

Founded in 1990, PCAP is a Residential College Program that has expanded to facilitate collaboration between inmates and artists through courses, publications, arts programming, workshops and more.

Kerry Myers, a free lance-journalist and photographer as well as a former inmate and acclaimed former editor of the prison news magazine at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, will be the event’s Keynote speaker next Thursday.

The full exhibition will be open March 21 through April 4.

Gallery times:
Sunday-Monday, 12pm-6pm
Tuesday-Saturday, 10am-7pm
Closed Sunday, April 1.

PCAP Exhibition Opening:
Date: Wednesday March 21
Time: 6:00 PM – 9:00 PM
Location: Duderstadt Center Gallery

Keynote Speaker:
Date: Thursday March 29
Time: 7:00 PM
Location: Duderstadt Center Gallery

Image: Lee Latham, Boxing Floyd Mayweather and Family, Color Pencil, 2017

REVIEW: EMBODY 2018 MFA Thesis Exhibition

This past Friday, the Stamps Gallery was abuzz with an eclectic and ageless crowd—twenty-somethings in high-waisted khakis, solemn photographers, sixty-somethings in color blocked heels, an ecstatic ten year old girl in panda covered leggings. Around 7 o’clock Osman Khan, director of Michigan’s MFA Program and Associate Professor at Stamps, picked up the mic to congratulate the exhibiting artists— Brenna K. Murphy, Robert Fitzgerald, Brynn Higgins, and Stephanie Brown— at the opening reception for their MFA thesis exhibition: EMBODY.

Khan beamed, “For me what I’m most proud of is that they have embodied what the school means.” If this collective show may double as an echo of the school itself, then Stamps is an innovative attention to modernity, careful homage to both the consistencies and inconsistencies of developed creative form, and an unabashed questioning of norm.

The first performance of the night was part of Murphy’s three part work, “Crossing.” Situated in the back of the galley, the space is dictated by an elongated bobbin lace contraption. Sitting in a spotlight Higgins weaves the bobbins methodically as onlookers contemplate and are utterly consumed by the absence of breath in the space and the trancelike quality of the weaving.

The multi-media exhibit is a questioning of “how grief can be expressed by and embodied in the physical labor of making.” The performance itself is a hypnotic act of vulnerability that Higgins explains in her own words as a metaphor of grief her teacher gave her so long ago: “separating the bobbins into three groups: ‘it’s like two friends going over a river. First one crosses, then the other follows.’”

In order to view Fitzgerald’s performance of “/offscreen/” the crowd was ushered through an open glass annex out into the lobby of the McKinley Town Centre. Through the glass, the audience watched a suit-glad Fitzgerald move creatively around an empty wood floor. His movements were jumpy, repetitive, and exaggerated. A knowing side-eye and a particularly comic wardrobe addition of goggles enlisted periodic laughter from audience members. At one point he mimicked the movement of a golfer and at another he seemed to be urging invisible comrades to army-crawl with him through trenches.Seeming both puppet and controller of a confused dream series, Robert uses his performance to draw the audience further into the world of his concrete installation of “/offscreen/.” The work is a nostalgia trip that features moving images superimposed on the architecture of a childhood bedroom. In Robert’s words “ by mining the films of [his] adolescence, [he investigates] the construction of masculinity through movement.” A particularly striking projection found underneath the bed sheets highlights the physical language of inter-male compassion and intimacy. If you stay in the exhibition long enough you may be able to overhear two middle aged men discuss John Travolta in “Saturday Night Fever” and the way they used to flip their hair in high school.

Higgins’s work, “How to draw a line with a clenched fist” is an exciting juxtaposition of sculpture and video situated in the central passage. Most compelling is the map motif that splays itself over the video projection and reappears as a crumpled piece of sculpture on an opposite table. The video— a black white image of hands manipulating clay—seems oddly destructive when placed in juxtaposition to a striking collection of paper-thin, terracotta colored clay sculptures arranged on a podium by the opposite wall. The meticulous attention to arrangement and material itself externalizes our closest wishes to manipulate, protect, save, and create. In the words of Murphy this exhibit is predicated on the “tenuous nature of knowing a thing.”

Immediately upon entering the gallery, viewers are confronted with Brown’s work, “Am I Enough.” The exhibit is an interactive interplay of word and installation centered by the chilling last line of a poem printed on the wall: “When did you decide who you are?” Adjacent to these words is an installation of a closet filled with hanging human skins. This closet, toeing the line of cliché, is so strikingly unromantic that it is impossible to look away. Its cliché only serves to intensify a deeply familiar notion about the way our skin wears us and we it. In Brown’s words her installation “critiques skin color discrimination and its relationship to self-esteem…illustrating the unconscious decisions made in private spaces.” Her best work is found in her interactive use of language—a packet of poems and a Mad Lib about skin— and in her attention to detail: a stylized vanity decorated with a particular typography of subversive and brilliant quotes by influential African American men and woman (From James Baldwin to India Arie) that made me feel as if they had once sat at that very table and scribbled the thought in their own hand.More than worth a cold walk down S. Division, the EMBODY exhibition is a must-see for all who have ever been confronted by the fact of identity and its material place in the world.

The show will run until Sunday, April 1. A performance of “Crossing” by Brenna K. Murphy will take place from 11:30 – 4:30 pm on Saturday March, 31.