Prison Creative Arts Project Annual Art Show and Detroit Connections or What I Did Over Spring Break

Judith Tannenbaum

I’m just home from Ann Arbor where I spent the last week of March at the 13th Annual Prison Art Show. This year, more than three hundred pieces of artwork were displayed at the Duderstadt Center Gallery at the University of Michigan.  I gave a speech as part of the celebrations, had good talks with Prison Creative Arts Project students, got to hear men and women very recently released from prison speak about what making art and the Art Show meant during their years inside, witnessed an excellent teaching arts program in many of its manifestations, and shared deep conversations with professors Buzz Alexander and Janie Paul about this work that involves both art-making and social justice.
PCAP – which was founded in 1990 – is a student/faculty/community organization based in the Department of English Language and Literature and the School of Art and Design at U Mich. Members join primarily through taking Buzz Alexander’s courses that train students to facilitate theater and writing workshops in state prisons and juvenile facilities, or Janie Paul’s visual arts courses that do the same.

To date PCAP has facilitated hundreds of collaborative workshops in theater, creative writing, art, dance, music and video, each culminating in a final performance, reading or exhibit. As with many teaching arts programs, PCAP’s core values center around the belief that every human being has the capacity to create art, and that art-making should be accessible to all.
In addition to the workshops in prisons, juvenile facilities and public schools, PCAP also has developed:
  • The Portfolio Project in which university students work one on one with incarcerated youth and adults to help them prepare portfolios of their art and creative writing for presentation to parole boards, judges, schools, and employers when they return home.
  • The Linkage Project which links incarcerated youth and adults – writers, musicians, actors, and dancers – with a community arts mentor upon their release, supporting them as they make the transition back into the community.
  • The Annual Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners – the event that took me to Ann Arbor – a two week exhibit of art work by men and women from most of Michigan’s state prisons. The show attracts close to 4000 visitors to the gallery,  and results in sales for the majority of exhibiting artists.
  • The Exhibition of Art by Incarcerated Youth that showcases the work of artists in Michigan’s juvenile facilities.
Janie and her visual art students also work through Detroit Connections, a project of the University’s School of Art and Design. Students are required to take at least one three-credit class in which they actively engage with people outside of the school community, working together with some form of art or design. Janie and her students teach weekly art classes to fourth graders at two Detroit public schools for three months each semester.

In the year 2000, Janie and her university collaborators created an art and science curriculum for the fourth graders, designing projects that involved close observation, perception of essential characteristics of phenomena, and the perception of parts and wholes. In 2001, they created projects that found common ground between art and math. They focused on metric measurement skills, designing and producing collaboratively made Alebrijes – imaginary animals made out of wire and paper mache and painted with brightly colored patterns.  University and elementary students also made individual books in the shapes of objects that represented possible career paths.

PCAP and Detroit Connections are both programs that highlight the experience of making art with people – prisoners and children in urban public schools – who have no art instruction and little access to art or art-making. As Janie points out, the children in the Detroit schools where she works most often come from homes in which there’s not enough money for toys, books or paper, whereas most of her university students remember playing with colorful games, blocks and puzzles when they were young. Buzz and Janie as people, and PCAP and Detroit Connections as programs, are concerned with the growing gap between rich and poor in our country and how invisible this crisis is to many middle class and affluent people. They ask what they can do, as college level educators,  to address this issue.

I’ve been a teaching artist in dozens of public schools and also many prisons, and the phrase I’ve been using lately to sum up what I see as a continuum between the two institutions is: “Some kids are being trained for power, and others trained to end up in prison.” Disturbed by this inequity, Buzz and Janie structure their university courses – through texts read and discussed, through constant journal writing about observations and reactions, through class conversations – in order to support college students as they start truly to notice the realities that have shaped their own lives and the lives of the people they work with in prison and public school. Both Buzz and Janie talk about university class discussions in which students struggle with the clash between their preconceptions and what they are learning.

“Here were the realities of poverty that would have remained theoretical if we hadn’t been there,” Janie once wrote . “And I wanted my students to hurt from seeing these things. I hoped that they would feel not only sad, but angry. But my real piece of work came in our classroom back at our school, where I tried to take the hurt that they felt and see the chain of events that led to the hungry child… to see it going back to real people who make real decisions about unequal funding for schools, about cutting social services and about creating policies like No Child Left Behind.”

I talked with Janie about one public school in San Francisco’s Mission District in which the vast majority of the elementary school children are Spanish speaking, and most are new to the country. College banners line the walls of this school. The children in Room 202 are not called “First Graders,” but “San Jose State” because that’s the college their teacher graduated from. Every child in that school recognizes college as a realistic step in his or her life, even if no adult in the family has yet attended.
Janie smiles at my story and tells me how the fourth graders and U Mich students chat as they make art together. The children ask the young adults a million questions about college, and at some point in the semester the Detroit children are brought on a field trip to the Ann Arbor campus.

Buzz, Janie and I talked about how so many middle class young people beginning to share art in unfamiliar environments characterize what they’re doing as “helping.” There’s often sincere good-heartedness behind this helping perspective, but still, the framework is problematic when – as we see it – there’s a lot that’s intentional or nearly so behind the inequity. By the time I met with the university students sharing art-making in Michigan prisons and Detroit schools, they were  beyond this “helping” storyline. They were feeling the sadness and anger Janie spoke of: they’d read, discussed and raged at the world they were now seeing more clearly. They cared deeply about the people they were meeting in prison and schools. These young adults were full of questions, observations,  concerns and wonder, and talking together was a gift and pleasure.
For more information about PCAP, go to
For more information about Detroit Connections, go to

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