Artist feature: Painting his way out of prison | Arts & Culture

Artist feature: Painting his way out of prison

Artist feature: Painting his way out of prison

Reuben Kenyatta standing in front of artwork at the Prison Creative Arts Project exhibition at the Duderstadt Gallery.

The Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP) was founded in 1990 with the mission to collaborate with incarcerated and formerly incarcerated adults and youth in order to strengthen our community through creative expression. Housed in the University of Michigan’s Residential College, faculty and students work with community members both inside and outside prisons to engage in workshops in theater, dance, visual art, creative writing, slam poetry, and music. 

Annually, PCAP hosts one of the largest prisoner art exhibitions in the world at U-M, which showcases the work of incarcerated artists around the state of Michigan.

Reuben Kenyatta, a Michigan native, knows what it’s like to be on both sides of the project. His work has been featured as part of the annual exhibition in years past while he was incarcerated, and since his release three years ago, he has continued to pursue art as a career path. This year, he joined the PCAP curatorial team, where he hopes to help others receive the same benefits that the program provided for him during his time prison.

U-M Arts & Culture intern Abby Zrike talked to Kenyatta recently while visiting this year’s show, which is currently on view at U-M’s Duderstadt Gallery through April 5, 2017.

AZ: Can you tell me a little about yourself? How did you get involved with PCAP?

Kenyatta: This is my first year as a curator for the Prison Creative Arts Program. I have been here several times, not only as a curator but also as a participant in the show. I too, was as one of the incarcerated artists. I am a returning citizen, and I’ve been out for about three years now. Using this platform, I was able to build my career in art and follow my own passion to see what art will do for me. This program has allowed me to express my artistic freedom as well as to improve my sense of self-worth.

AZ: How does it feel now being on the other side?

Kenyatta: One thing I didn’t realize while I was in prison was the attitude of some of the people organizing PCAP. When I first got involved in the program from the inside, I always thought that it was some sort of government gimmick. I doubted it quite a bit. There was a lot of discussion about it between the inmates, and one of the biggest suspicions everyone had was that these people were going to take our paintings, bring them back to this big laboratory where these people in big white coats would inspect the work and try to figure out what are our motivations are. ‘What are the criminal elements in the work? Are these people eligible for parole?’ By coming here and being on the other side, I was able to see that wasn’t the case at all—there are no guys in coats in a room trying to dissect our brains through our art, just supportive people who love art and understand the therapy it provides. It was such an amazing feeling.

AZ: How did it feel to display your artwork in the PCAP show when you were still in prison?

Kenyatta:  One of the things that was so outstanding when I came to my first PCAP art opening was the emotional comfort I felt. I never had that kind warmth, encouragement and support—it almost drives me to tears. I’m a veteran, so my emotions have always been suppressed from the trauma I faced during combat. Because of my Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, I don’t often experience the love and support that I did from the 300 some people that came to the opening. It was such a wonderful feeling, one I hadn’t experienced in such a long time.

AZ: What is your role in PCAP now?

Kenyatta: I’m part of the curator team. We, along with the staff, students and community volunteers, actually go around to each facility—if I’m not mistaken, there were about 29 facilities visited by someone on the curators team this year. We critique and choose the art that will be featured in the show. Our team is made up of individuals with different backgrounds, interests, and concerns, which speaks to why the show itself is diverse. Some people had three or four amazing works, but we could only select one or two because of space constraints. We ended up showing 550 pieces.

AZ: I know you are also an artist yourself.  What type of art do you do?

Kenyatta: I actually do fine art. I do realism. One of the things that I do as an artist… well, one of my goals is… I wouldn’t say political, but I would say ‘socially concerned.’ I am socially concerned about things, and I show that in my work. One of my mottos is to give sight to the unseen and a voice to the unheard by using my artwork to deliver messages that people may not be able to say publicly.

An acrylic painting titled "Equal By Desperation" by Reuben Kenyatta.

An acrylic painting titled “Equal By Desperation” by Reuben Kenyatta.

AZ: So, do you paint?

Kenyatta: I work in acrylics.

AZ: Oh, me too!

Kenyatta: Acrylics are user-friendly—they help me develop faster as an artist, I believe. This kind of paint dries fast, and that gives me a chance to recover my mistakes. It’s so therapeutic because when you make a mistake in life, you’re punished to a point where you’re overcooked. With acrylics, it gives me a chance to make that mistake, explore that mistake and correct it because it didn’t fit in the picture. That mindset helped when I was rehabilitating my thinking and outlook on life. And this is the goal of the PCAP program—to give the incarcerated an outlet for self-expression and obtain self-worth. It definitely did the job for me.

An acrylic painting titled “One Last Look” by Reuben Kenyatta.

AZ: I know that visitors of the gallery are encouraged to write critiques or feedback letters about the work and that those letters are then sent to the prisoners/artists. Did ever receive a letter?  If so, what was it like reading the comments about your work?

Kenyatta: I did. When I received a letter from a U-M student, it was so significant. It might have been the third letter I had ever received there aside from letters from the Department of Corrections. Receiving that letter gave me an opportunity to see that I was worth something. I was so inspired that I took his letter and thought of him as the future. I thought, if I were to meet this person in the future, I would want to be acceptable by that point. People may not realize how significant these letters are—no matter how long—to the artists that receive them.