Inside the University of Michigan’s 28th annual prison art show

ANN ARBOR, Mich. (CBS DETROIT) – The University of Michigan Prison Creative Arts Project has been exhibiting and selling work by incarcerated artists across the state for nearly three decades.  

As part of the program, PCAP staff and students visit 25 prisons across Michigan each year to select artwork to present in the annual show.  

Funds from each sale go directly to the artists on the inside. 

“We’re giving the artists a chance to be seen as whole people, not in terms of the worst thing that they ever did,” said co-founder of the PCAP exhibition, Janie Paul.

Some of the artists continue to be involved with PCAP after their release. 

Martin Vargas was an exhibiting artist with the program for 23 years. Now a curator, he says PCAP gave him hope. 

“It was very emotionally validating,” said Vargas. “Because it sort of engrained in me that my work was good enough, and therefore, if my work was good enough, then I was good enough.” 

Another exhibiting artist-turned-curator, Kimiko Uyeda, exhibited with PCAP for eight years.  

“I think what it does on the inside for a lot of people is (it) really gives us something to look forward to,” she said. “You’re in a grey and white environment, and art is anything but that.” 

In January, CBS News Detroit went on an art selection visit with the PCAP team to Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility. 

What was striking about the art was the use of found objects.  

In prison, art supplies are difficult to come by. 

“Artists inside face a lot of hurdles when it comes to accessing materials,” said PCAP director Nora Krinitsky. “Sometimes those are financial hurdles. Sometimes, those are policies imposed by the facility. Artists often have to wait a long time for materials they’ve ordered. So, we see so much resourcefulness, creativity, brand new use of materials that I’ve never seen before.” 

“Toothpicks, toilet paper, toilet paper rolls, soap,” said Uyeda. “Kool-Aid for dyes, ink pens and water … it just depends on what you see in your environment and you use it.” 

“When you’re an artist, even if you’re just starting out, any piece of paper will do, any pencil will do,” said Vargas. “If you’re an artist, you’re going to create, period.” 

Uyeda said PCAP fosters creativity in one of the most unlikely places. 

“One of the things prison does is it strips you down from the person with the dyed hair and nails to an individual wearing the same uniform as every other person, and you’re known by your six-digit number, and it takes away your humanity,” she said. “And PCAP actually gives you that back by allowing you to explore your own personal form of expression and self-healing through artwork.” 

After more than 20 years with the program, Janie Paul said she has seen its impact on hundreds of inmates firsthand.  

“People go from being bored, angry, hopeless to being really charged up into having a purpose,” said Paul. “I would say the core is that making art and having a place to exhibit it and being validated gives a meaning and a purpose to their lives. And creating meaning, I think, is the most important and vital part of being human. And incarceration does everything possible to diminish that.” 

The exhibition will take place March 19 through April 2 at the Duderstadt Center Gallery on U-M’s North Campus.  

The Duderstadt Center is located at 2281 Bonisteel Blvd. in Ann Arbor. 

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