…transcendence is a deeply and joyously experienced need to be in harmony even with what we ourselves are not, with what we do not understand, with what seems distant from us in time and space…
- Vaclav Havel
For 17 years I have been going into prisons to collect art for the Annual Exhibitions of Art by Michigan prisoners. From 442 visitors in 1996, to 4,000 last year, the exhibit has grown into a phenomenon that has changed the lives of hundreds of incarcerated citizens in Michigan.
It has also given us, the organizers, an opportunity to participate in this deeply human process of self-transformation that takes place despite living conditions that make this nearly impossible.
Luckily, there are wardens, administrators and corrections officers who support growth and creativity for prisoners. We are fortunate in Michigan to have a corrections department that supports our exhibits. However, the criminal justice system in the United States is set up to strip inmates of their identity.
With only a number for identification, without personal clothes, cherished objects or family members close at hand, it is difficult to hold onto one’s self.
Some people begin making art as a way to act upon the world with will and creativity. In the process, they are able to shed pieces of their former selves and meet the person they are in the process of becoming.
Artists cherish their art materials and find inventive new ways to work with them. A ball-point pen can be smoothed with cloth to produce subtle tones. A pencil can be used to emboss, and instant coffee can become paint. In the intense relationship with materials, artists find peace, attention and focus.
The intimate link between artist and materials, hand and eye, teases out inner workings of the mind to create extraordinary and often idiosyncratic imagery. Most artists work in isolation with only their own inner resources to draw on. With so little to look at in the environment and with such focus on their inner life, artists feel greater and greater familiarity with themselves, and discover nooks and crannies of their own imagination. These inner spaces of the mind and the heart keep generating objects of value to themselves and to others. In this ongoing productive activity, they discover inner freedom. Once discovered, they rarely want to give it up.
While many artists work all year to produce art for the show, the exhibit is just one part of an on-going effort and engagement with the prisoners. In the fall of each year we write to each artist inviting them to submit work. In the winter we visit the prisons and meet with artists. Immediately after the show, each artist receives a packet of materials including reviews and a photocopy of all of the comments in the guest book.
In the summer, each prison receives a video of the exhibit showing the opening reception and a shot of each piece. Prison artists are allowed to gather to watch it in small groups or it is shown on the facilities’ closed-circuit television, allowing artists to be inspired by and learn from each other. With these successive points of contact, we help build community both inside the prisons and between those in the “free world” and those locked up.
The selection visits are emotionally intense for us and for the artists. We have about an hour to accomplish something that they have been anticipating all year. The special activities coordinator takes us into a room where the artists have carefully laid out their work on tables. In the best scenarios, they are there when we arrive and we have a few minutes to mingle, greeting old friends and introducing ourselves to new artists. The atmosphere is highly charged. It may be the only time the artists have the opportunity to share what they care about most with people who are interested in what they do now, rather than what they have done in the past.
Once the artists leave the room, we review the work and make our selections. Then we call each one in to tell them of our decision, give them feedback and hear what they are thinking about their creative work or some aspect of their life as an artist in prison.
Though we hold the power to accept or reject their work, we meet on common ground. We share with the prisoners an understanding about transcendence and growth, about the possibility of change and transformation.
And, whatever words we manage to exchange during this brief time, one day each year, we know that together we are embarked on a project to rearrange assumptions about who is locked up in this most incarcerating nation in the world.
Sound clips are by Stephanie Rowden, who came with us on several visits in 2011.
View more work from previous exhibition in the gallery below, as prison artists comment on social, environmental and economic conditions; depict the violence of war; and sustain themselves with images of nature, memories of familiar places, and images of religious faith, families and freedom.