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Stateside Podcast: Prison art as survival and resistance

 A scene in colored pencil of a man sitting at a table with watercolor supplies. The room is small, with windows on both visible walls. Visible through a doorway in the background is a hallway, and the window of another room. Through each window, and along the hallway, there are inmates going about their day.
Christopher Levitt
Courtesy of Janie Paul
Christopher Levitt uses colored pencil to create a scene of life in prison. His work is titled, "The Painter."

“...It's a way of creating meaning in and under oppression,” said Janie Paul. “[And it] brings to the viewer a feeling of urgency and intensity that I think makes us all access a deeper part of ourselves.”

Paul spent decades fostering the art of individuals who have been incarcerated. The stories and work of artists across Michigan’s prison system meet in her new book, “Making Art in Prison: Survival and Resilience.”

Paul’s late husband, Buzz Alexander, founded the Prison Creative Arts Project through the University of Michigan. The program provides resources and collaborative opportunities to incarcerated individuals all around the state. Paul later became a curator for an annual exhibition of their work.

“We were both appalled and horrified by the situation of our prison system in the United States and wanted to do something about it,” Paul said. “Since 1973, the prison population has increased 500%. And we didn't know, when we started, some of the stories that we've since learned about the damage that prison does to people.”

“Selection visits” are the heart of the project, Paul said. She and Alexander would visit artists in prison to get to know them and their work before selecting pieces to exhibit. One artist they encountered, Alan Compo, produced a series of piercing self-portraits.

A painting of two men clinging to each other as they are tossed around in dark, swirling water. One man keeps tight grip on a rope that hangs above them. Two mice are perched there, watching them. In the background, a wide-eyed, yellow rubber duck stares at them.
Alan Compo
Courtesy of Janie Paul
"Holding On," a painting by Alan Compo.

“The expressions on the figures' faces are very disturbing and communicative,” Paul said of one piece depicting two men tossed around in a dark, swirling sea. They cling to a rope where two mice are perched, and a wide-eyed rubber duck stares at them from the background.

“I think it immediately just jolts you into this feeling of desperation, and the precariousness of the situation that he’s in, of being incarcerated.” Paul said. “That he's almost drowning but is not. I think it's incredibly well done.”

Compo was a young man when he committed a crime that landed him in prison, Paul said. He was identified as a talented artist in high school and was encouraged to attend an arts school in New Mexico, but never ended up going. While incarcerated, Compo met an older man serving a life sentence who encouraged him to start drawing again.

“He recognized that he was an artist and that he could do this, but he steadily made some incredibly powerful work, most of it centering on Native American culture,” Paul said. “For him, it was a way of really creating his identity in a place that wanted to identify him only as a number. It was a way for him to become visible in a place that wanted him to be invisible.”

Compo is one of many artists who have been touched by the Prison Creative Arts Project. In their personal statements, many artists expressed that work gave them a sense of control, and provided a means of self-discovery. Art, Paul said, is so much more than a hobby or a way to pass the time.

 A headshot of Janie Paul. She is a Caucasian woman with dark, curly hair that reaches just past her shoulders. Here's she wears a light pink, almost-white blouse, and a silver necklace.
Courtesy of Janie Paul
Janie Paul is a Professor Emerita of Art & Design at the University of Michigan's School of Social Work. She's also the senior curator at the Prison Creative Arts Project.

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April Van Buren is a producer for <i>Stateside</i>. She produces interviews for air as well as web and social media content for the show.
Ronia Cabansag is a producer for Stateside. She comes to Michigan Public from Eastern Michigan University, where she earned a BS in Media Studies & Journalism and English Linguistics with a minor in Computer Science.