Prison Creative Arts Project

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Interview: A Prison Art Community On the Power of an Annual Exhibition in Michigan to Support More Than 700 Incarcerated Artists

January 31, 2023

Grace Ebert

A painting of a man sitting in a reflective pool with broken steel bars in the foreground

“Self Portrait: Free Inside” by Jamal Biggs

As abolitionists and activists fight to end mass incarceration and the horrifying conditions of life in U.S. prisons, individuals and organizations have taken it upon themselves to help those trapped in the unjust system. The Prison Creative Arts Project 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.

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

In this conversation, Colossal managing editor Grace Ebert speaks with two formerly incarcerated artists, Johnny Van Patten and Josh Herrera, and faculty director Nora Krinitsky about 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.

Read the interview.


A painting of a fence in a green landscape

“Fence” by Kenneth Gourlay, a member of the Linkage Project

A photo of a woman taking a photo of art on the wall of an exhibition

The 2022 exhibition ‘Shared Humanity.’ Photo by Nathan Kennedy