University of Michigan marks 25 years of prison art shows with digital gallery

Gallery goes virtual due to coronavirus pandemic

Artwork entitled "The Face" by THEO in the U-M Prison Creative Arts Project. (Rudy Thomas Photography, University of Michigan - Prison Created Arts Project)

ANN ARBOR – The University of Michigan’s Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners is celebrating 25 years with a virtual gallery due to the ongoing health crisis.

The annual Prison Creative Arts Project at U-M is now one of the largest exhibitions by imprisoned artists in the world. Each year, the curated show features a wide range of subject matter and artistic media.

“Although we are celebrating 25 years of annual exhibitions, this is also very much a year of firsts -- the first digital online exhibition, the first year of virtual programs and tours, and the first time that we have been able to offer remote sales,” director of the Prison Creative Arts Project Nora Krinitsky said in a release.

“We will all miss being in the gallery together very much but being able to make the show accessible to anyone in the world is incredibly exciting.”

"Pointless Acquisitions" by Alvin Smith. (University of Michigan - Prison Created Arts Project)

Krinitsky said the organization has wanted to expand to a larger audience for some time.

“I hope that our artists are gratified to know that their work will be seen far beyond the gallery in Ann Arbor this year,” she said in a release. “In that way, even though this is an unusual year, we’re able to serve PCAP’s mission of connecting people impacted by the justice system with those in the free world more than ever before.”

PCAP’s arts programming coordinator, Graham Hamilton, said some 2,500 pieces were considered from artists in every single prison in Michigan.

The team of curators made up of U-M students, faculty, staff, local artists and community members chose roughly 830 pieces for this year’s exhibition.

"Could You?" by L. Wheeler. (University of Michigan - Prison Created Arts Project)

“It was an extraordinary year, although it was some time ago that we visited,” Hamilton said in a release. “It is our largest exhibit ever in the history of the show. It includes over 600 artists. So for us, that’s a big group of artists to work with, and we feel very privileged for that.”

The online exhibit and sales are now open. For more information, visit the exhibit’s website. Sales will close on March 31.

To view artwork for sale, visitors can schedule sales appointments. Sales will be made via phone and the artwork will be shipped to customers. 100 percent of the net sales revenue goes to the artists.

The virtual gallery was designed so that audience members can browse through artwork with specific themes. One page, for instance, only highlights work by female artists while another showcases first-time artists, who set their own prices.

The pandemic posed many challenges to PCAP, but the project’s curators set up the site to mimic the gallery’s in-person experience.

“Every year before the 25th, people have come into the gallery, a physical space, where they’ve seen the art up on the walls. That’s a really powerful thing that we missed with the quarantine,” PCAP curator and recent U-M graduate Caleb Foerg said in a release.

“One of the ways that we’re going to kind of emulate that is to have a front wall in the gallery on the website. It’ll be our featured page and then viewers can take a tour. It won’t be quite like a walkthrough but it’s very close to it.”

PCAP associate director Vanessa Mayesky said she hopes the event will sell out this year since it will reach a much broader audience in a digital format.

“One thing we are really excited about with this digital version of the exhibit is that we are able to expand artwork sales to anyone in the U.S., not just those who can make it to Ann Arbor,” Mayesky said in a release. “Typically, visitors purchase about half of the pieces offered for sale. My secret hope is we can sell it all this year.

“Many PCAP artists rely on sales revenue to purchase art supplies as well as things they need for daily living. I would love to send our biggest sales check ever to artists’ prisoner accounts this year.”

Artist Bryan Picken was released in January 2020 after spending 16 years incarcerated. He is debuting in this year’s show as a PCAP curator with two pieces.

“This is my first year on this side curating the show,” he said in a release. “Getting to see all of the pieces in person is a much bigger experience than I thought it was going to be.”

“Art gives us a means to show we have other talents and abilities. That we’re not just the numbers on our backs,” incarcerated artist Jason H. said in a release. “We’re more than the mistakes that brought us here. Art gives us a really expressive way to show who we are and not just what we’ve done.”

For the full schedule of events around the 25h annual exhibition, click here.

About the Author:

Meredith has worked for WDIV since August 2017 and was voted one of Washtenaw County's best journalists in 2019 by eCurrent's readers. She covers the community of Ann Arbor and has a Master's degree in International Broadcast Journalism from City University London, UK.