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Prisoner art exhibit makes its US debut at Ann Arbor Art Fair

Jamie Sherman Blinder

WE BEAR, artwork by Daryl Rattew

ANN ARBOR—”WE BEAR,” an art exhibit featuring works sourced by the University of Michigan’s Prison Creative Arts Project, will make its U.S. debut at the Ann Arbor Art Fair July 21-23.

The work of more than a dozen artists incarcerated in the Ann Arbor area—and a dozen more from across the United Kingdom—will be exhibited after a successful showing at the Coventry Biennial in England.

With a mission of supporting artists at all stages of their artistic practice, PCAP presented incarcerated artists with the same 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. Organizers posed questions to inspire creativity pondering how the bear might be feeling, and where the bear might be in those works. 

“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. 

The artwork this project inspired puts a spotlight on the human condition, particularly in the time of COVID when prisons did not lend themselves to social distancing or mental health solutions, PPE was not provided and overcrowding became a more prevalent issue, she said.

WE BEAR, art by Alvin Smith

WE BEAR, art by Alvin Smith

“So often people in prison are put away and become ‘out of sight, out of mind,'” Unrath said. “Unless you have a loved one who is incarcerated or has dealt with the justice system, you don’t often think about it in your day-to-day life. 

“The idea that the U.S. locks away more of the population than any other country in the world, and all the issues with mass incarceration, it’s almost like this big secret. By bringing this issue to the forefront, we are not allowing people to forget about the humans that are still being held behind bars.” 

Ninety-five percent of people in prison will be returned to society, according to the Congressional Research Service. PCAP’s focus on humanizing artists in prison through their art aims to create a more supportive and understanding community, and to encourage artistic collaboration, mutual learning and growth, Unrath said.

WE BEAR, art by Parker Ayers

WE BEAR, art by Parker Ayers

On-site with the exhibit at Liberty and Main streets, PCAP will host storytelling 2-4 p.m. July 21 and spoken word performances—from slam poetry to monologues to raps—2:30-4:30 p.m. July 22. 

Citizens for Prison Reform will have an interactive model of a solitary cell on display at the fair for visitors to experience the conditions under which these artists were finding their inspiration and creating their art.

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