Making Art in Prison: Survival and Resistance

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The United States is the most incarcerating nation in the world. More than two million people are locked behind bars, where they endure the degradation and violence of a dehumanizing system. But in prisons around the country, incarcerated people have regained their dignity by creating objects of beauty, meaning, and value. These powerful stories and images upend the manufactured stereotypes of those living in prison, imparting a real human dimension—a critical step in the movement to end mass incarceration.  

For 27 years, Janie Paul has traveled throughout Michigan to meet artists and select work for the project she co-founded: The Annual Exhibitions of Artists in Michigan Prisons, an initiative of the Prison Creative Arts Project at the University of Michigan. Pedagogical as well as curatorial, the project has provided crucial validation for the artists. Making Art in Prison features over 200 images of their extraordinary work.  

Delving deeply into the ways in which incarcerated artists create meaning through their artistic practice, Paul explains how the making, sharing, and formation of artistic friendships within prisons can constitute acts of resistance against the violence and banality of prison life. Most of the artists did not make art before coming to prison. Their accomplishments show that art making need not be a privilege of the few, but is rather a basic human need, and in these circumstances, a necessary means of survival. 

Making Art in Prison reveals—through the eyes of the artists who have lived through it—what mass incarceration looks and feels like in the United States. It reveals the ways in which they keep their humanity intact; it invites us to reflect on our own humanity and the problem of living in a country that incarcerates more of its population than any other nation in the world. It also invites us to look closely at the images and appreciate the richness of life and luminosity emerging from the darkest corner of our country.

Written by Janie Paul. Published by Hat & Beard in 2023. Hardcover, measures 11.5 x 8.5 inches, 336 pages. ISBN 9781955125277

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