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Breakout artists

Vance Hancock - August 10th, 2009
Breakout Artists
Prison art exhibit debuts at Manistee Art Institute

By Vince Hancock 8/10/09

From tiny territorial prisons across the country, to behemoths like Leavenworth, prison art has existed as long as people have been incarcerated. Inmates, with time as their most plentiful resource, have used bits of soap, trash and other social residue to produce stunning and surprising works.
Some prison art is as notorious as its creators. Serial killer John Wayne Gacy painted images of Disney characters and clowns. Family members of his victims purchased many of them so they could be pitched onto a bonfire. Other art remains locked inside, scratched directly onto walls and only seen by the next inmate.
For many, the closest contact with prison art is the Clint Eastwood flick, Escape From Alcatraz, in which the character of Doc is punished for his portrait of the warden.
For those who’ve never seen prison art directly, the Manistee Art Institute’s upcoming show at the Ramsdell Theatre in Manistee will be a mandatory sentence. Tudie Rulison, an MAI board member and organizer of the show, has herself put in several years of labor. “It’s isn’t something you do overnight,” she says. “A show doesn’t normally take three years to put together.”
After battling red tape and uncertain timelines, Rulison is about ready to open the doors. But even with contributions from the University of Michigan’s Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP), the Manistee County Jail and Manistee’s Oaks Correctional Facility, the exhibit is just a small sampling of available artwork.

Some of it, at first glance, is inescapably linked to prison life. Dark colors saturate some of the works, and a few of them contain strange creatures like those of Hieronymus Bosch. But that’s just one facet of prison art, says PCAP founder Buzz Alexander. “The art is so good,” he says. “There are landscapes and portraits, as well as prison scenes. You might walk in expecting something gloomy and scary, but once you’re in the room, all that changes.”
Many Michigan prisons now have formal programs thanks to PCAP, which began in Ann Arbor about 20 years ago. Visual art, among other art forms, is encouraged, showcased and critiqued by the organization.
While much of the art extends beyond depictions of prison angst, Alexander doesn’t want viewers to make assumptions. “Some people characterize the artists as murderers and rapists, but that’s a small percentage. A lot of them just grew up in poverty. Our hope is that people might develop some sensitivity and eventually hire or troubleshoot for the artists.”
Alexander says that higher education used to be a regular part of many institutions, and part of the rehabilitation that’s frequently cited, and dismissed, by both sides of the prison debate. In 1994, Congress pulled Pell Grants from the reach of prisoners. In Michigan, PCAP has tried to fill the gaps to help the prisoners re-enter society, but also to keep them connected with important people outside. “When family members see the artwork, see the plays or read the writing, that does a lot for those who are mad at their family [for going to prison],” says Alexander. “This program is part of developing community among family.”

Locally, the Oaks Correctional Facility in Manistee has partnered with PCAP since August 2004.
Patrick Isabell heads up the Oaks recreational programs. Since working with PCAP, Isabell has seen a dramatic increase in participants’ confidence.
“They receive opinions on their artwork and possibly [learn] how they can work to make their future art more than it is,” he says. “A sense of accomplishment really starts to show in them.”
The Oaks prison will contribute art from four inmates, and the Mansitee County Jail is also expected to submit several works.
Debra Butler, 43, is one person who knows what art can do, from both sides of the prison wall. Before serving a three-year sentence, Butler had always sketched. “When I was five or six years old, I would dig in Grandma’s purse for gum and find some paper and a pencil. I would just doodle wherever I was.”
When she found herself in prison, Butler’s drawing skills were a constructive way to keep up her confidence and maintain a few creature comforts. “A lot of times, they just give you a two-inch toothbrush,” she says. “It’s hard to reach the back teeth with something like that.” By selling pencil portraits and sketches to other inmates and even prison guards, Butler earned enough money to purchase a standard toothbrush from the prison commissary.
She also earned praise.
“Officers and counselors would look at my work and say, ‘You could write your own future,’ so I thought that I’d do something with that. I want my work to be so wanted that I’m backlogged.”
Now free and living in Ann Arbor, Butler found that her interests extended to the canvas, and she took up oil painting for the spare moments when she’s not maintaining her home. “It gives me a lot of a satisfaction and self worth,” she says.
Several of Butler’s works will be shown in Manistee as part of the PCAP Linkage Project, which helps to merge former inmates back into society, with the aid of mentors. It’s this kind of outcome that encourages Alexander. “They work collaboratively, which is huge, given the isolation they experience. They speak publicly. We’re advocating for these people, and that’s political in the best sense.”

The Manistee Art Institute’s Prison Art exhibit is part of its “Double Feature” show, which also features photography by local residents. Reception on Friday, Aug. 14, 6-8 p.m. at Hardy Hall (inside the Ramsdell Theatre). Regular exhibit hours: Aug. 15, 21, 22, 1-8pm and Aug. 16 & 23, 1-4pm. (231) 723-2682.
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