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September 22, 2010 - Image 12

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4B The Statem-ent W/vednesday, September 22. 2010

Wednesday, September 22, 2010 // The Statement 5

THE UNIVERSITY'S PRISON CREATIVE ARTS PROJECT BRINGS ART WORK
AND JUVENILE FACILITIES, PROVIDING A SOURCE OF IDENTITY AND INS
BY CHANTEL JENNINGS

N PRISONS
/OLVED.

It would have been one thing tenIrview a criminal in
prison. To walk in confident he or she had been patted
down, knowing guards were within shouting distance
and that cameras- wvere recording our every move. But to
interview a man who had spent 12 years behind bars while
sitting in his living room alone, knowing my feeble sense of
security was only within myself, that was another thing.

The feeling didn't strike until the
morning of the interview, and when
I got out of bed I considered allow-
ing the fear in my stomach to disguise
itself as an illness. I considered not
doing the interview at all.
But I hated myself for that - that I
was more nervous about sitting with
an ex-prisoner in his home, rather
than sitting with a current prisoner
in a cellblock. After all, I wasn't going
to meet an ex-prisoner. I was going to
meet an artist. It was this realization
that pushed me out the door and into
the car that would take me 70 miles to
the home of Fernando Delezica.
By the time I reached Delezica's home
my fear had more or less subsided.
His small apartment was carved
into the lower level of a cookie-cutter
home built in the 1960s. A small stair-
case led from the driveway down to
his apartment. When I pulled up, the
door opened almost immediately and a
small man came rushing up the steps.
"I'm so sorry it was difficult for you
to find my place," he said over and over
again before introducing himself.
He was shorter than me. His white
sneakers produced a striking con-
trast to the dark blue of his jeans. He
wore a cotton polo and his hair was
a bit disheveled, as if he too had felt
unsettled about how to prepare for the
interview.
Last fall I facilitated a poetry work-
shop in a Detroit juvenile facility
through the Prison Creative Arts Proj-
ect (PCAP), a University organization
that pairs up students with prisons,
juvenile facilities and select Detroit
high schools. PCAP members work
side-by-side with inmates to collabo-
rate on original works of art, writing,
music and theatre.
After my semester with PCAP, the
words 'compassion' and 'understand-
ing' seemed to take on another defi-
nition for me. Prisoners and juvenile
delinquents that were once only a
thing I heard of on the evening news
now had faces and names that held
a solid part of my heart. People like

Delezica were no longer inmates, but
artists.
"I'm about to get to my point," Delezi-
ca promised after 45 minutes of talking
about his experience with PCAP - the
organization that, as he describes it,
changed his life.
"But I need to stop before I get too
emotional," he quivered. After look-
ing around the room, Delezica got up
and grabbed some of his acrylic paint-
ings, pointing out the different paint
strokes and colors. One wasn't finished
completely, the tree in the background
was more or less finished but the wind-
mill still needed a bit of work. It was
the groundwork for what Delezica said
would be a painting of the "memory of a
place he'd never been."
He wanted me to know that he had
talent, that these pieces meant some-
thing to him, because for 12 years
Delezica was told by the state that he
had nothing. And talent? Convicts don't
have talent. They have time. Time spent
in a 7' x 10' foot box. They have time to
sit and think in an iron casket that soci-
ety calls a cell.
When Delezica talks about his first
eight years in prison his eyes glaze a bit.
They were hard, he admits. He was dis-
couraged, and finding it difficult to be
anything other than that while in prison.
But in the eighth year, he says, begin-
ning to speak more quickly, a friend of
his inside convinced him to go to this art
class run by some organization called
PCAP that was happening every week at
the prison.
And what was at first, for Delezica,
just some class taught by a woman from
Ann Arbor quickly became a space
that allowed him to find himself again
through art, to find his voice amid the
inaudible mess that prison was.
"This is what we're told by staff when
we come through what they call the
'bubble' there at quarantine: 'You've
pretty much been rejected by society,
you're nothin' but a piece of garbage
and good luck to ya. We don't care what
happens to you,"' Delezica says. "But
here comes a whole team of people

that say: 'We have an avenue for you to
express what's in your heart, what's in
your mind, what's really troubling you.
And we're willing to accept it and we're
willing to accept you with your struggle.
What you did is not what you are."'
And in the first brief moment of
silence more than an hour into our con-
versation I ask my first and only ques-
tion of the interview.
I point to a snapshot on the far wall
that depicts a small boat's silhouette on
calm water. "Where did you take that
photograph?"
"That's not a photo," he says with a
satisfied smile. "I made that."
I stare at the drawing for a moment,
stand up and walk over to the wall. It's
not until I'm standing inches away that
I finally see the pencil lines precisely
drawn and shaded.
I look over to Delezica who is visibly
enjoying witnessing my amazement,
enjoying seeing my guard come down
as I allow him to continue on with his
story. He was a convict. He is an artist
- an artist who used his tools to shatter
his iron casket.
PCAP doesn't always look like that,
and founder and University of Michigan
English Prof. William Buzz Alexander
will be the first one to agree. But it'sthese
types of stories that keep Buzz pushing
forward. It's people like Delezica that
inspire the PCAP organization, enough
to not only continue but to keep adding
workshops at prisons and low-income
high schools throughout the state.
"It's all too much. This whole thing is
too much," Buzz says, a painfully honest
statement. "It runs us ragged. We work
very hard. The need is incredible in all
the fields that we work in ... It's alot like
a lot of things that are too much - you
have to do it, because of what it's about."
Today, PCAP workshops exist in
more than 30 prisons and juvenile cen-
ters and seven Detroit high schools. But
just 20 years ago, it all sortof began with
a request from Liz Boner, a student of
Buzz's at the time.
She was traveling to Florence Crane
Women's Facility in Coldwater, Mich.
once a week to bring University course
materials to two women sentenced
to life in prison. Boner was in Buzz's
guerilla theater course, a class that
performed original theater pieces in
public places for groups of people who
unknowingly became audiences.
The two lifers she was meeting
with at the time were interested in the
course, and Buzz and one other stu-
dent agreed to make the trek to Cold-
water every week to meet with them.
For nearly a month and a half the five
held thoughtful discussions and played

theater games, soon realizing that this
expression of creative energy could ben-
efit the inmates at large.
Twenty years later, Buzz continues
to work with this group, a theater group
now known as the Sisters Within The-
ater Troupe. The women have put on
more than 29 original plays.
"When you're creating your own
original work and you're creating a
character, that character gets based
on what you know and who you are.
And often you're working off your own
issues... and it's on the stage," Buzz says
of his work with The Sisters Within.
"When you're there watching that play,
you don't know all the backgrounds but
you're feeling it among the actors and
in the theme of the play. And it's got a
power that you're not going to have. A
professional actor playing somebody
else in a powerful story based on a real
story is still not that person and you can
tell the difference even though it's bril-
liantly acted."
From a five-person workshop, PGAP
has grown to an organization that now
involves every form of creative expres-
sion and has included several thousand
University students, community mem-
bers and incarcerated youth and adults.
Much has changed since Buzz came
to the University in 1971. That year,
there were three prisons in Michigan
housing approximately 3,500 inmates.
In 2006, Michigan had 51,000 prison-
ers. And the United States continues
to be the most incarcerating nation -
its prisons account for more than one
fourth of the convicted in the world. As
of 2008, Michigan was one of four states
that spent more on corrections than
higher education.
More shockingly, America is the only
nation that incarcerates youth for life
without parole. More than 3,000 adoles-
cents sit behind bars today and will stay
there for the rest of their lives.
When Buzz introduces himself, rath-
er than explaining that he holds a Ph.D
from Harvard or that he's a tenured
English professor at the University of
Michigan, he simply tells people that he
works in prisons.
At a high school reunion years ago,
one member of his class asked if he ever
wore armor while working in the pris-
ons. What sounds like a naive question
only expresses the nature of most peo-
ple's thoughts of prisoners.
LSA junior Carly Friedman worked
last fall in a poetry workshop in a juve-
nile facility in Detroit. For her parents, it
was a far cry from the comfortable Chi-
cago suburbs they were accustomed to.
"They didn't understand it," Fried-
man says of her parents' reaction. "I

explained that it was a program that
essentially brings in the creative arts to
people who are not given the opportu-
nity to sit down and write or have athe-
atre workshop and learn what it's like to
stand in front of a group of people and
perform. And they heard that part but
what they really heard was that I was
working in a prison."
Friedman was enrolled in English
310, a course that largely works as a
feeder class into the PCAP organiza-
tion along with Buzz's English 319 and
326. The class begins with a day spent
together playing theatre games and dis-
cussing why students have decided to
work in prisons. The students pick part-
ners based on where they want to work
and in which medium of art.
Throughout the course of the semes-
ter students are challenged with read-
ings that discuss educational policy,
segregation-and social justice. Most stu-
dents enrolled in the University know
little about Detroit and see it as irrel-
evant despite its proximity. But the class
offers a vastly different perspective that
is drawn from the collective experienc-
es of the group.
Buzz relies on the students' honesty
and the dialogue in class to work as the
catalyst behind how the class develops
and what they learn.
"In our educational experience we're
taught to trust those who are above us,
in a sense, who maybe know more than
us and take that as the truth, rather than
sitting in a lecture and thinking to your-
self, 'Maybe he's wrong, maybe she's
wrong, maybe this isn't right, this isn't
how I should be doing it.' But it's struc-
tured so that we often don't go beyond
someone else's opinion to formulate our
own," Friedman said, "Everyone is pret-
ty quick to say, 'That's all there is to it.'
"It's much easier to do that than to
constantly sit there and think, 'But wait,
what if this isn't right,"' she continued.
"And it's exhausting to do that. It's
exhausting to constantly form your own
opinions. And I think a lot of people just
don't have the energy to do so and they
choose to be ignorant. It's easier to be
ignorant and sometimes you're happier
when you're ignorant. But that doesn't
mean it's the right way to live your life."
While the course material stays large-
ly the same from semester to semester
See CREATIVE ARTS, Page 8B
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT:
Alan Norberg, Count Time; Duane Montney,
Persona Non Grata; Nancy Jean King, The
Feeling of Freedom 1; Fernando Delezica,
The Last Winter; Rod Streleau, 5000 Days
and Still Counting; Daniel Mullins, North by
Northwest.

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