RCAH exhibit, panel, and performance spark dialogue about incarceration, art, and Michigan's criminal justice system

October 23, 2015

Throughout the month of October, the Residential College in the Arts and Humanities hosted several events intended to spark conversations about the state of Michigan’s criminal justice system.

From October 5 through 23, the RCAH LookOut! Gallery exhibited the work of artists currently incarcerated in Michigan’s prisons. The exhibit, “Living Inside the World: Artwork from Michigan’s Prisons” was organized by the Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP) at the University of Michigan and curated by Charlie Michaels.

“I think the shows have a few different purposes. The first is to give artists who are incarcerated a chance to show their work,” Michaels said. “But the second one is for the public to begin a conversation about who is in prison and why people are in prison … I hope people enter this dialogue with themselves and … begin to relate to this person they don’t know through this work. It’s a basis to start a conversation about prison and why people are inside, it’s humanizing; they become a real human being.”

On October 8, a panel gathered in the LookOut! Gallery to discuss the exhibit and PCAP’s impact. Dr. Jim Dankovich, a resident of Birmingham, Michigan, has a son who was incarcerated at the age of 15. Dankovich is a member of several community education and legislative reform groups. Mary Heinen is a co-founder of PCAP. She works with families who are suffering from poverty and are directly affected by incarceration. Reuben Kenyatta is a Lansing artist who is a strong proponent of art as a healing process. Janie Paul, another PCAP co-founder, was also in the audience during the panel discussion.  

PCAP was started in the winter of 1990 and has continued to grow ever since.

“The show itself was pretty small; we had something like 50 pieces, and now we have over 400. The art show has become such a major institution in the state … it’s really changed the culture of art in prisons in the state of Michigan,” Paul said.

Even the work of the artists has changed over the years, often becoming much more personal.

“People started doing some of this amazing work you see here that is incredibly original. The show provides an intense amount of validation for people who don’t get any validation. There’s no validation for growth (in prisons) and growth is what keeps people alive,” Paul said, adding that artists have written to PCAP to let the coordinators know it helped them to survive prison. “Art provides opportunities to feel like there is possibility in life.”

Artist Rueben Kenyatta said the project helped him to find a sense of self-worth and connect with the community.

“It was only after I got involved with PCAP that I wanted to do a lot of self-development and I could find out the therapeutic value of art,” he said. Kenyatta is also a veteran, and making art helped him to cope with PTSD. He’s currently working on a mural in Lansing.

“I was able to connect doing art with how it changes my thought process … I saw when I do artwork, everything started happening positive in my life. The more I paint, the more positive I became in my behavior and in my attitude,” Kenyatta said.

Mary Heinen said she believes making art helps to take people outside of their current reality.

“The creation of art inside takes you outside of where you are. You’re able not to be in a room with 28 women sleeping. You’re able not to be under the worst circumstances you could ever imagine, without your family. And you’re able to pour your heart and soul into a creative process that helps soothe you and helps communicate what you need to say,” she said.

Additionally, on October 15 and October 18, RCAH cosponsored two staged readings of the play, Justice for Maurice Henry Carterwith the Unitarian Universalist Church of Greater Lansing. The play tells the story of Maurice Henry Carter, a man wrongly convicted of the murder of a Benton Harbor police officer.

At the reading, director and RCAH professor Lisa Biggs emphasized the importance of the play because it’s a story that took place in Michigan. She referenced current events in Ferguson and Baltimore and said the play is an opportunity to look critically at our own criminal justice system.  


Story by RCAH student Kelsey Block, photos by Katie Wittenauer and Meghan Hollister.