Artwork from The Prison Creative Arts Project
Every year, U-M professors, Janie Paul and Buzz Alexander, along with various student and community volunteers, travel across Michigan to visit prisons and collect art for an annual exhibit of prison art at the University of Michigan. Now in its 13th year, the show has become the largest exhibit of prison art in the country, with hundreds of prisoners participating each year. While art-making has always been part of prison life, this exhibition in the 'outside' world, no less at a prestigious university, has generated work unlike that of any other state.
This half hour documentary tells the story of how these two activist/artists began working inside Michigan prisons and introduces us to former prisoners, now released, whom they met along the way. The story features art from inside Michigan prisons and is a powerful window into the often invisible experience of the thousands of men and women behind bars in this state.
Order your DVD copy of ACTS OF ART: The Prison Creative Arts Project for $15.00. Call 810-762-3028 to place your order.
For more information visit: The Prison Creative Arts Project Website
I first met Janie Paul in 2005 when I came to work at the U-M School of Art & Design in a new collaborative partnership between the school and Michigan Public Media. Janie was a professor of art there, yet, what she taught was not 'art' in any traditional sense of the world. One of her classes traveled into an impoverished public school in Detroit to teach and mentor the young children there who were deprived of basic supplies like textbooks, let alone art supplies. Another class revolved around the Prison Creative Arts Project, a massive organization comprised of students & community volunteers involved in creative arts programs inside Michigan prisons.
In fact, what I learned, as an outsider entering the subculture of an art & design school, was that this desire to have an impact on the world through art was not uncommon in those who chose 'artist' as a profession. Janie was an activist and she was an artist. She believed in the power of art as a tool for social change: that the act of art-making was transformative, if not healing, and should be made available to every part of the population.
Then, I met Zbigniew Libera, a visiting contemporary artist from Poland, whose work stemmed out of a similar drive: to speak out, to rectify, to point out the injustices of his native Poland. He could be called an activist too, in a way, but his 'method', if it could be called that, was entirely different from Janie Paul's. Libera created work that was so provocative and edgy that it caused picketing on the streets of New York City. Libera's work, the most famous being his Lego Concentration Camp, poses difficult and disturbing questions about the invisible social conditioning inherent in consumer culture. He, too, cares deeply about freedom and social justice~ the best way he has found to do this is to exercise his freedom, even if it means deeply disturbing our culture's cherished beliefs and sacred ground.
Holly Hughes, a rather famous performance artist, also teaches at the School of Art & Design. Hughes was part of the so-called culture wars when she was labeled a 'garbage artist' by Jesse Helms on the floor of the U.S. Senate. A lesbian and playwright, her work often ventured into the controversial area of female desire & sexuality. When congress forced the N.E.A. to rescind a grant they had awarded her, she become part of a larger cultural war about public funding for the arts.
Hughes became a reluctant activist, fighting for her freedom to express herself honestly as an artist, even if it meant entering the taboo area of lesbian sexuality.
What I found with all these artists was not just the creative impulse to make their own art, but the correlating impulse to speak out and, in some way use art, or art-making, as a tool for social change. The manner in which such impulses can and will express themselves, is, I'm sure, endless. In this series on "the artist as activist", we just explore a few.
First, meet Janie Paul, Buzz Alexander, & the Prison Creative Arts Project.....Stay tuned for Part Two.