Stamps School professor bridges U-M with prisoners’ art
Janie Paul took her lifelong desire to make art with people living on the margins of society to create a novel culture at the University of Michigan.
In 1995 she partnered with Buzz Alexander to develop the Prison Creative Arts Project, which he had originated in 1990, connecting university students with incarcerated citizens in Michigan.
“It started very organically,” says Paul, an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor and professor of art and of social work, explaining how the organization and classes began on a small scale and grew into a tradition. “We wanted to bridge the university with the kinds of people most students don’t ordinarily think about.”
In 1996 she began her Art Workshops in Prisons class. In this class, undergraduate students facilitate a weekly art workshop in a prison or juvenile facility. When Paul started doing such art workshops with what is now the Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design, she was the only person teaching this kind of a class.
“The University of Michigan has a great tradition of social justice work, but there were no classes like this at the School of Art & Design, and not many people were talking about incarceration at that time,” she says.
“Today, there’s much more of a culture of engaged practice and now prison issues are almost always in the news and the media. The classes reveal the deepest problems with the nation’s justice system.
“It’s really transformative for students,” Paul says. “They gain critical insight into a civil rights issue by getting to form bonds with real people. It inspires them to think hard about tough moral issues.
Paul emphasizes the need for art within the prison environment.
“Life in prison is horrible — there’s little chance for growth and development. Prisoners don’t get much validation for anything,” Paul says. “People who sign up for an art class want to keep growing.”
Paul and Alexander also started the Annual Exhibitions of Art by Michigan Prisoners, now in its 22nd year. Student volunteers take selection trips to the prisons and get to meet and talk with artists.
Over the years, Paul has made and seen many special connections form between students and prisoners.
“Art becomes necessary for survival. We’re helping people — this is the thing that’s keeping them alive,” Paul says. “We see that. Students see that. It’s very moving, really painful.”
Because of the moving and emotional nature of the experience, many of Paul’s students have gone on to become art teachers, social workers or art therapists.
“We are all searching for meaning and ways to grow,” Paul says. “It’s even more stark in prison — it’s so urgent.”
In 2000, Paul started the Detroit Connections class, which sends U-M undergraduates to Detroit public elementary schools to teach weekly art classes. Children and college students are inspired by each other and benefit from close semester-long relationships.
For two years, Paul was the director of Community Connections, developing art outreach work in schools, helping others teach similar classes and integrating community development and art into the U-M curriculum.
Paul has received the Harold R. Johnson Diversity Service Award. She continues to stay involved as the senior curator for the PCAP Annual Exhibitions each year. Presently, Paul is working on a book about prison art that will release in the next two years.
Q & A
What moment in the classroom stands out as the most memorable?
When a student came back from their first art workshop at a men’s prison and said, “They were just like my uncles!”
What can’t you live without?
What is your favorite spot on campus?
What inspires you?
The incarcerated artists, great music, beautiful landscapes, the children I have worked with.
What are you currently reading?
“Gratitude” by Oliver Sacks.
Who had the biggest/greatest influence on your career path?
Harris Barron, an artist and sculpture teacher I had when I was a child. His mind was free-ranging and he let us in on what he was thinking. He was respectful and completely attentive to each of us. And he was funny.