A Colossal Interview
A Prison Art Community On the Power of an Annual Exhibition in Michigan to Support More Than 700 Incarcerated Artists
January 31, 2023
For touting freedom as a foundational right, the United States cultivates a system of control. The nation incarcerates more people per capita than any other country, and even after COVID-19-related releases, the population totaled about 1.9 million people in 2022, more than that of Phoenix, Arizona, the fifth largest city in the U.S. with approximately 1.6 million residents.
As abolitionists and activists fight to end mass incarceration and the horrifying conditions of life in prisons, individuals and organizations have taken it upon themselves to help those trapped in the unjust system. The Prison Creative Arts Project, or PCAP for short, has been undertaking such work for decades, bringing its community at the University of Michigan together with those directly affected by the carceral system through workshops, learning opportunities, and an annual exhibition. The goal is to foster connections and create a robust community of artists that transcends prison walls.
In December 2022, I spoke with two formerly incarcerated artists, Johnny Van Patten and Josh Herrera, who joined PCAP while inside and have been profoundly impacted by its efforts. I also connected with faculty director Nora Krinitsky for insight into the backend of the project, how it operates and what its community members experience both inside and out. We discuss how creative practices function while incarcerated, why exhibiting and selling work is essential to the process, and what the humanity of art means in a system built on dehumanization.
These conversations have been edited, condensed, and combined for ease and clarity. All images © the artists and the Prison Creative Arts Project. Shown above is the 26th annual exhibition. Photo by Nathan Kennedy
Grace: How did PCAP start, and how many people are involved with the program at the moment?
Nora: We’re now in our 32nd year of operating, and we began with undergraduate classes. Buzz Alexander, the founder of the program, was a professor in the English department who had a really keen interest in social justice and the connections between arts and social change. He and his students would meet on campus and have meetings about the carceral system, about what was happening inside prisons. They began going inside and hosting workshops, first in theater and then in other modalities like creative writing and visual art. They also started to realize there was this huge community of visual artists inside. It was the students and faculty who then decided to begin the annual exhibition of artists in Michigan prisons.
Our total number of involvement is always a bit of a moving target. It changes from semester to semester. I’m the faculty director of PCAP, and we have four staff members who oversee our various programs, our creative arts workshops, our community outreach, and our annual exhibition. We also have five other faculty members who teach courses connected to PCAP. In a given semester, we might have between 40 and 50 students enrolled in PCAP courses and usually between 20 to 30 additional students or community members who volunteer with PCAP. They are trained by the organization to go inside and facilitate workshops.
Over the last several years, we’ve had typically in our annual exhibition 400 or so artists exhibit their work in the show. We typically have between 150 and 200 participants who are participating in our workshops, not enrolled students but people in prison or community sites. And then we have a community of folks who have come home from prison in the Linkage Project.
For the students who enroll in PCAP programs, it is such an important learning experience for them, taking their learning outside the classroom and thinking about real-world applications. We really strive in the workshops inside to create a space where, as best we can, people are entering as equals. Our workshops aren’t taught. They are facilitated, meaning that students and volunteers are bringing their ideas, they’re setting a structure for the workshop, but they’re not there to teach a class about writing or to teach a class about visual art. It’s really about creating a space for mutual learning.
Grace: Have you always been artists?
Josh: No. I learned when I was incarcerated. When you enter a place, usually everybody has a different set of groups, like the Latinos stay with the Latinos, the Blacks stay with the Blacks, the whites stay with the whites, so on and so forth. Fortunately, I was Latino and most of the Latinos there were pretty tight. One of them suggested if I was going to change my ways of living, to try something different. One of the guys was an artist–his name was Scribbles–he said if I ever wanted to learn, some of the other Latinos were taking classes. I just started doing that, and that’s how I got into art.
Johnny: I grew up around tattoo artists. Growing up in an atmosphere that’s always constantly changing every six months, the artwork changes, always being challenged by the next generation of better artists who’ve been watching you and everybody else before you, and drawing from that. We glean from each other. We kind of copy each other, but we put our own spins on it.
Also growing up, my stepdad’s best friend did murals. In the 70s, there was this whole explosion of these giant murals on vans, and they were a part of that. I’ve been watching these artists do the most beautiful murals my entire life. I’ve been surrounded by amazing artists.
Grace: I’d love to know about the community of artists inside.
Johnny: Interestingly enough, I had a conversation with somebody yesterday, a famous criminal who I was locked up in level four with, actually locked next door to me in the cell next door. He gave me my first set of pencils and some stencils to do cards. He’s like, “Dude, I seen that you were just drawing, and you need some colored pencils.” Things you can get cost a lot, and he passed that on to me. Some of the older guys noticed that I could actually draw and would give me some supplies. This is prior to me being able to get supplies on my own. That’s kind of how it worked in there.
I’ve taught a lot of people how to do portrait work because it’s a good hustle in there. We used a lot of tattoo flash books, and I would give them to other kids that were trying to make their money. You always have to stay a step ahead of everybody because when you hand that off, you’re actually jeopardizing the money that’s coming into you. You have to be better than the next man, so there’s a healthy competition going on in there. As long as you’re honing your skill, you will be better than the next man, especially if you find your niche of what you do and have your own style about things. To draw something that’s totally me is a different vibe altogether. You’re getting a piece of my soul, a piece of my vision, a piece of my dreams, a piece of my past life coming out into artwork.
Josh: When I first started, I didn’t know how to paint. I would always have other artists help me out if I got stuck on something. It was not only the teacher but the other people that did art that would help me out. Art would only like last maybe two hours, and then we’d go back into our one little area. It was very, very limited. Everything was limited. We couldn’t do too much.
PCAP introduced themselves to the facility by buying our art and enhancing our art (practices) if we needed any help when we got out. It was so limited, too. You only had a limited amount of time to sign up to go see them or to have them come. You gotta write everything ahead of time or else you can’t get in. You needed a permission slip pretty much.
Grace: Did you share your skills with others, as well?
Josh: I would fix their mess-ups. Some of the guys, if they messed up on a painting, they would get a little frustrated and try to like throw it out. I’d be like “no, no, no, you can fix it!” Or I’d fix it for them. I don’t want to throw a painting away just because they messed up on a little bit.
Grace: What was your access to art supplies? Were there resources or references?
Josh: Yeah. They call it hobby craft. You’d need the same thing, a permission slip to have the certain materials you could have, and you’d only have a certain limited amount of what you could have, like how many paint brushes you have, how many paints. They don’t really count how many canvases.
We used many materials. I used cardboard. Sometimes, I used pieces of apron from the cooks. It was fun. I didn’t mind. What else? What other materials do we use? The bed sheets, but you’d make it thicker. You get flour, or the mixture of flour and something else. It came out pretty good. It would get harder and then you could paint over it. I never did toilet paper, but there’s a lot of people that were. I was more like, I’ll just paint.
Johnny: I was very blessed on the inside. Referencing is one of the toughest things that you can come across while in that kind of environment. Anything National Geographic, anything that had nature and beauty and color and beautiful photography of things, I started to take notice of. I would start to collect these things. I would go take a black-and-white photocopy of them in the library and then bring them back so that had it.
There were some old pictures of Native Americans, and anything over 100 years you don’t have to worry about copyright. I would take these black-and-whites and then I would produce these new school colorization of the same old photo.
I built the frames out of the backs of the notebooks, the cardboard, and then glue. I would build these little frames out, use colored paper and then stain them with coffee. Some of the joints would let you have leather and beads and feathers and stuff like that.
You have to actively seek new visual stimulation, or you’ll get stuck with the same old prison images, tears, bars, cement blocks, the very, very prison-like things. One of the things that helped me the most was tattoo magazines. When they were still printing tattoo magazines, I had subscriptions to a bunch. I would get them on a monthly basis. I would get all these phenomenal artists and see these different styles and watch how the game was changing, how these people were doing things differently. That was a huge inspiration to me to be able to see that.
Nora: Art materials are very precious inside. Due to the nature of the prison system, there are restrictions around what suppliers folks can order from. At various facilities, there might be restrictions around a material, or there are some facilities where certain colors of paint even are prohibited, supposedly for security reasons. Artists are wading through a web of restrictions to get materials.
One thing that’s so critical for most of our artists is that the money they’re able to make selling their pieces in the show is often the budget they have for purchasing art supplies for the coming year. So the show in that way plays this important role.
We’ve seen lots of really, really creative use of materials. Over the past decade or so, we’ve seen more sculptures or three-dimensional works. You might see things like sculptures made out of toilet paper that’s been wetted and maybe colored with things like Kool-Aid.
I was on a visit recently, and a man brought an incredibly detailed sculpture of a Harley Davidson motorcycle that was entirely made out of paper. If I didn’t know, I would have thought it was a high-end model from a model shop. Crochet is also a pretty significant artistic practice inside prison. An artist recently made a model based on the Wright Brothers’ biplane, the first airplane to fly. It was made out of very light wood craft sticks. I was up north at a prison, which has a very high-security level that corresponds to even more limited access to materials, and there was an artist there who creates really moving abstract pieces with a real range of color and texture. I’ve been a fan of his pieces for years. He brought a piece, which I think was on paper, but some of the other materials he used were things like KoolAid, shampoo, toothpaste. I’ve seen a number of artists use things like sand from the yard, which we might incorporate into the texture of a piece. Also, others take sand and make their own sandpaper.
The cost of these materials for many people is so prohibitive, and that makes them all the more precious. If they have a tube of acrylic paint and it’s almost gone, they’ll cut the edge of it and open it up to get every last bit of it that’s inside. One thing that could lead to is a real risk around experimentation. Experimentation is a risk for any artist, of course, but even more so for folks inside who get only a few opportunities to get feedback on their work. And for whom materials are often even more precious or expensive than they are here in the free world. I’m always really grateful and excited to see artists experiment knowing that the stakes are very high for that.
It’s a little bit of a fool’s errand to look for logic when they have these restrictions. It’s really about power. It’s about exercising power and making it known that you have that power.—Nora Krinitsky
Grace: I volunteer with Chicago Books to Women in Prison, and some prisons don’t allow us to send coloring books or journals. Have you experienced restrictions like that? It’s wonderful that folks are getting creative with what they have, but for places that are not even letting people have blank paper, how does that affect what they produce?
Nora: I recently learned that at one women’s prison in Michigan, they are also not allowed to have coloring books. I don’t even know what the nonsensical prison reasons for that, you know? There’ll be variability from one facility to another, even if they’re in the same department of corrections.
I think part of what this amounts to is the cost we were talking about a moment ago. If you can’t even have a book with blank pages, you have to pay money to get paper. The financial burden that incarcerated people and their families face is so incredibly high. In the free world, I will hear things like financial arguments against the carceral system, which get me because I often think, you have no idea of the financial burden.
It’s a little bit of a fool’s errand to look for logic when they have these restrictions. It’s really about power. It’s about exercising power and making it known that you have that power. But in terms of artists, we see folks struggling financially or having to get really, really creative.
Grace: I want to return to the annual exhibition. Can you explain the process for our readers from curation to the logistics?
Nora: Yeah, of course. Every year, the annual exhibition happens for two weeks in March on the Ann Arbor campus of the University of Michigan. To prepare for that exhibition, PCAP staff, volunteers, and curators schedule a visit to every prison in the state. These visits usually happen from about October through December, and there are currently 26 correctional facilities in Michigan. At the height of the prison boom in our state, there were, I believe, nearly 40. We actually have far fewer facilities than I’m used to but still a very large number.
Ahead of our visit, we notify people inside, artists who have exhibited before, people on our newsletter list, that we are coming in and that we welcome their visual art submissions. When we arrive at the facility, it’s usually about a two-hour visit. We will first meet with the artists. Our volunteer groups and our curators will circulate and learn about the works and then make a decision about which pieces to bring back with us to Ann Arbor to exhibit during the show.
The first annual exhibition had fewer than 100 pieces in it. Our most recent show had more than 700. It’s grown by leaps and bounds, which is really a testament to the artists inside who are so enterprising and have so much creativity about creating art.
All of the art included in the exhibition is for sale, and the proceeds go back to the artists themselves. PCAP does not make money from the show. We’re really here to offer a venue and offer a chance for people to acquire art and support artists inside.
Grace: When artists sell their work in the annual show, what is the process their money goes through before they can access it?
Nora: Artists name their own prices for their pieces in the show. Once it’s accepted into the show, we add to their sticker price a cost for taxes and a cost for fees that will be withheld by the Department of Corrections. This usually adds up to about $10 or $15 on top of their sticker price. Once the piece has sold, PCAP collects that money. We transfer that to the Department of Corrections that doles it out, which can take months. We’re working with both the Michigan Department of Corrections and the University of Michigan, so two big bureaucracies. This is not their top priority by far. Usually, artists will get the payment from their sales from March or April in June or July.
Talking about, again, the financial burden. If there are court fees or liens held against them by the state, the state just takes it. Even if we’ve provided some buffer for routine fees, the department takes from any sale that someone makes. It’s honestly a little bit of a black box trying to figure out how to get folks what they deserve for their work.
Grace: How did it affect you to make money through PCAP?
Josh: It was a good hustle for me. I made fairly good money for doing small art. In the prison system, they have another area where you sell your artwork to the outdoors. When you’re coming to visit, they’d have a whole area where you could look at art and buy the artwork. I had some stuff sold there, too. It was really cool. I would make money doing that, too. What I’d sell it for is not very much, like, $100 or $10.
Art is pretty great in there. I also worked in there getting paid 45 cents an hour. It’s not a lot. So doing this, you feel like a millionaire.
Johnny: PCAP came into the prison, and they were like, “well, we can sell artworks.” And we’re like, “Okay, so what do we draw?” What we learned was, after the first year, there’s a printout or a CD that comes through the prison that we get to watch, and we get to see who’s been doing this a while, what has sold, and how much it sold for. There were people like Martín Vargas, who was one of the guys that I watched every year. He just did amazing works. I would be like, okay, so what’s selling, and I would start to target that.
There’s guys that are locked up for life that are just phenomenal artists. They would sit down. They would teach you and show you. Then in return, we would sit down and teach and show somebody young that had some talent coming in. I took money from the things that I sold and did, and I kept cosmetics around for guys. I kept our supplies for guys coming in. When you come in from a new joint, you don’t have anything, and you’ll wait 24 hours before you can even get your soap and your toothpaste and whatnot. I would keep that stuff on hand.
I kept our supplies for guys coming in. When you come in from a new joint, you don’t have anything, and you’ll wait 24 hours before you can even get your soap and your toothpaste and whatnot.—Johnny Van Patten
I started to do some prisoner-based works from a prisoner’s view. There was one I did. It was a state of Michigan. I made it 3D with a prison tower, keyhole lock, and out of the keyhole lock, coming past the prison tower was a conveyor belt. The conveyor belt was made out of dollar bills, and on the conveyor belt was these little figure-drawing mannequins. I put them in prisoner clothes with the blue and orange for Michigan prisoners. I put question marks all the way around the whole painting, and I did the whole background of it this blood red. I named it “The Production State” because we’re known for making cars. We used to be called the production state. We’re very into building things here. In my time of incarceration, we were pretty much just building prisoners on the taxpayers’ dollar.
I’m making a second painting with them, the same mannequin things going back in through the keyhole, back into the prison system. It was a revolving belt. When they would send us out here, give us no help, set us up for failure, and then put us back in there to make money off of us basically. That’s what the prison system is about. Making money. It’s a big business.
Grace: We often think of art as a form of pure human expression, and the prison system is built on dehumanizing people. How are people grappling with that tension? As you’re working, as you’re talking to artists, or as you’re involved in the program, is that something that comes up?
Josh: Art was an out-of-body experience because when you’re in that type of environment, there’s usually a lot of violence or just a bunch of sad stuff. Art was a pathway to freedom on the outside. You know what I mean? You’re in like another whole world. That’s what I liked about it.
Now that I’m out, it’s different. It’s a whole new world. You learn to appreciate life better.
Nora: It’s certainly a goal of the annual exhibition to create a space where people in the free world can kind of witness and experience the humanity of people inside. Part of what links art and humanities so intimately is, this might sound a little cliche, but the uniqueness of every single piece of art that’s created. One thing I’m always struck by is that viewers of the show, I would say without fail, find something that surprises them in the show. We might say that we know what incarcerated artists might produce. We certainly do see lots of images or art that represent life inside prison. But we also see landscapes and portraits and abstract art and assemblages or collages or kind of fantastical art. There really is no one genre and that I think is important to connect into that human element, too.
Art was an out-of-body experience because when you’re in that type of environment, there’s usually a lot of violence or just a bunch of sad stuff. Art was a pathway to freedom on the outside.—Josh Herrera
Johnny: I did a talk about the significance of shower shoes. Just something so simple. I still wear those shower shoes to this day. I brought them home with me to remind me, and I often go back to the prisons that I was locked up in, and I sit outside. I take a picture of me there. Sometimes you’ve got to go back to where you’ve been to see where you are because my life can get pretty down out here. But it sure beats what it was like in there. You don’t realize these are all high-class problems, the two motorcycles, the van, the apartment, the insurance problems this, that, and the other. Those are problems. Those are problems that I prayed for four or five years ago when I got out. Now I have them. It’s not I have to. It’s I get to make this payment. I get to earn some money. I get to do this. It’s a blessing.
I’m very quick to introduce myself anytime I do public speaking as formerly known as 711854. My name is Johnny Joe. I got my name back. I say that on purpose with intention. I earned my name back. I did 10 years in there. They were trying to give me life, and I did everything the right way. I did everything I possibly could. While I was in there, I was a model prisoner. I helped others. I was a facilitator in there helping men to make better decisions for almost 10 years. I continue to work with those very same people on the outside reaching back. That is my ministry. That is my mission is what I do.
Grace: When you mentioned naming, I was thinking about the importance also of signing your artwork with your own name.
Johnny: I can tell you this much. I did use my nickname for signing on my artwork prior to getting clean and sober and prior to going to prison. In prison, the majority of my artworks were either signed with my name, or I had a little insignia which was just a little piece of barbed wire that went from corner to corner on all my cards. Everybody knew exactly whose card that was and who I was. You’ll see that when I got out, I stopped doing the barbed wire. It’s just my name now. I sign my works with my real name. I don’t go under a pseudonym. I am exactly who I am. If you punch up my name, you’re gonna get all the bad stuff. But you’re also gonna get all the good stuff, so it’s up to you what you really want to focus on.
Grace: What else do our readers need to understand about PCAP and about art in prisons?
Nora: One thing that I have been impressed by in my time at PCAP is the urge, the desire, the drive people have to create, even when they’re in some of the most inhumane conditions possible. It’s something that I find particularly moving. I think it’s really critically important to make space for that everywhere.
Johnny: I get speechless watching people from PCAP help prisoners. Now that I’m part of Linkage, I get to be a part of that. I get to help new artists come out and show them what I’ve learned.
Linkage hooked me up with The Guild of Ann Arbor, a guild of artists. I became a member of the Guild, and they put me into the emerging artists’ tent at the Ann Arbor Art Fair. Half a million people come through there in a weekend. I got to go there and represent PCAP in the emerging artists’ tent. We brought prisoner art to the main stage, and PCAP had us come up and do some poetry reading, some storytelling. That opened the doors for a bunch of other things. Next thing I know, I’ve got a piece showing. I’m going down to citizens for prisoner reform events and reading poetry and performing songs. Doors just keep opening through Linkage. It keeps building and building. We’re kind of at the forefront of it.
We’re opening doors for other people coming in now. The kid I’ve seen the other night at our art auction for PCAP. He was brand new, overwhelmed by everything, just freaking out. He can’t believe people love his art. We’re helping him to navigate, giving him some tools, a box of art supplies so that he can start producing artwork, showing that he can sell prints, getting him to start applying for these calls for art, and getting him resources and connections.
The prisoner art this summer in Michigan, especially between Ann Arbor, Lansing, and Grand Rapids, has exploded. My piece hung in the parole office window next to the Grand Rapids Police Department. Along with a few other prisoners, we had our stuff hanging in the parole office window. Who would have thought? These events are validating that we’re actually good artists, and that’s awesome. We didn’t think we were. PCAP helped us with that. Doors are opening. I’m talking to you because of it, right?
Johnny: We get together for PCAP and come up with these ideas for things. The art box was one of my ideas. That’s something that we need when we get out so that we can create, not having any supplies at all, not having a way of escaping. If you don’t have that outlet and you’re locked in a house on parole, you can’t do anything. You’re sitting there within yourself with no expression, no way to get it out, no way to put it down on something. Those are the important times to start to do that stuff. It’s kind of like journaling. Once it’s down on paper, or it’s recorded, it’s real honest.
Being able to be in a position to help somebody through a tough time or get over a hump or put something behind them, that’s special. That’s where art really really touches the soul. That gives me purpose. It makes me feel like I’m doing something worthwhile.
PCAP will host the 27th Annual Exhibition of Artists in Michigan Prisons from March 21 to April 4 at Duderstadt Gallery in Ann Arbor. Find out how to support the project on its site.
Thanks to Colossal Members, we’re able to partner with PCAP to grant free access to all Colossal Workshops to those in the Linkage Project community.