Exhibit at Ann Arbor Art Fair showcases art created by those behind bars

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

A unique exhibit featuring the artwork of more than a dozen people incarcerated in southeast Michigan prisons along with a dozen behind bars in Britain will be displayed for the first time ever at this weekend's Ann Arbor Art Fair.

The exhibit, called "We Bear," will include 31 pieces — acrylic paintings, charcoal drawings and multimedia works, all produced by prisoners during the pandemic. They'll be displayed through Saturday at Liberty and Main streets. The exhibit has already been displayed in England at the Coventry Biennial.

The artists who participated from Michigan — including inmates from the Huron Valley Correctional Facility, Macomb Correctional Facility, Thumb Correctional Facility and more — are part of a program through the University of Michigan called Prison Creative Arts Project. Founded in 1990, it's one of the oldest programs in the country that conducts regular creative arts programming — visual arts, creative writing and theater — in Michigan prisons.

"One of PCAP's missions is to bring art from 'the inside,' outside to humanize people in prison, as well as create a larger dialogue around mass incarceration," said Sarah Unrath, PCAP arts programming coordinator. 

For "We Bear," which was devised by Faye Claridge, a British folk artist, specific artists, both men and women, were asked to participate and given two prompts: a work of art featuring bears from the American Folk Art Museum in New York and one from the Compton Verney Art Gallery and Park in Warwickshire, England.

Alvin Smith's acrylic painting in the "We Bear" exhibit depicts people in hazmat suits and a prisoner.

The pieces range from literally interpretations of bears to more metaphorical approaches. 

"What you end up with is this incredible range of perspective of these ideas of bearing witness, about being confined, about being captive," said  Nora Krinitsky, director of the Prison Creative Arts Program.

Krinitsky said every year they put on an annual exhibit of PCAP artists' work, where it's actually sold, but that had to be put on hold because of COVID. The "We Bear" exhibit was the first time some PCAP artists were creating again.

She said what they've found through their annual exhibitions is that very few were involved were artists before they went to prison.

"We Bear" has already been exhibited in England. It'll make its U.S. debut at the Ann Arbor Art Fair.

"It's something that really speaks to the draw of art as a way to express yourself, especially to express difficult emotions or topics that may be particular to navigate," said Krinitsky. "And also art as a space of agency in a context where folks have very little, if any, control over what is happening to them."

Krinitsky said they're really excited for so many people to get see this exhibit and the range of perspectives. The conditions inside prisons were really difficult during COVID, she said.

For some prisoners, the exhibit "prompted them to start creating again," she said. 


'We Bear' at the Ann Arbor Art Fair

An exhibit of artwork by 13 prisoners from Michigan and 14 from British prisons.

On display at Liberty and Main Streets through Saturday.