Breaking down walls through art and expression

September 7, 2022

A new program inspired by the Inside Out Program and funded by a U-M Arts + the Curriculum grant offers art-focussed workshops and discussions that are free and open to the public.

Drawing of Yusef “Q” Qualls by Sociology Professor Paul Draus. Q was a juvenile offender who is currently serving time at the Cooper Street Correctional Facility in Jackson.
Drawing of Yusef “Q” Qualls by Sociology Professor Paul Draus. Q was a juvenile offender who is currently serving time at the Cooper Street Correctional Facility in Jackson.“If thoughts are things ° Words are the hammer ° That I swing”

Bryan Jones composes music. An accomplished piano player, he works for the Chamber Music Society of Detroit. Steven Hibbler draws and paints. Harper’s magazine and a UM-Dearborn exhibit have featured his work. Graduate student Penny Kane writes. She won a prestigious U-M Hopwood Award for her non-fiction collection. 

Through artistic expression, all three found a sense of freedom while serving prison sentences. They also found — perhaps, more importantly — human connection.

“Artistic expression helped me become more than a number when I was inside (the prison). It’s also helped me create connections in the outside world, too,” said Jones, who guest lectures in the university’s Inside Out program. Jones served time for a robbery he committed as a teen. “Art opens doors and, for me, created a lifeline.” Inside Out, which began on campus 15 years ago, is a project-based learning class that encourages UM-Dearborn students to think about crime and punishment mechanisms in human terms.

Bryan Jones, second from left, speaks with Associate Professor Anna Müller during campus' Inside-Out Prison Program. Photo by Sarah Tuxbury
Bryan Jones, left, talks to Associate Professor Anna Müller during the Winter '22 Inside Out course.

Sociology Professor Paul Draus and History Associate Professor Anna Müller are both long-time faculty in the program and have also developed courses, research and study abroad experiences around the power of artistic expression in challenging situations. From their work, they know the importance art plays in human connection when it comes to confinement. Beyond prison, this includes internment camps, medical-related isolation, substance abuse, poverty, and more.

“We all have walls. Some are imposed on us by others and others are the prisons we create for ourselves. Art is freeing and can help us express ourselves, learn about others and find connections where we didn’t see them before,” Draus said. “Art is a tool. It’s powerful.”

Now, they’ve created a new way for the public — students, faculty and staff from UM-Dearborn and surrounding schools; community members, formerly incarcerated citizens and others — to engage in dialogue that is focused around creative expression. The program is made possible through a U-M Arts + the Curriculum grant.

Professor Paul Draus

Art and Agency from the Inside Out” consists of free arts-centered workshops and discussions where people can openly share their experiences under the direction of facilitators trained in areas like writing, dance and metal arts. The program will take place throughout the academic year and will have a different artistic focus each month. 

There will be two sessions per month, which will take place at 6 p.m. on the second and fourth Tuesdays in the Mardigian Library. Refreshments will be served.

The program is drop-in, but it’s encouraged that participants attend both workshops in a given month, as the material is spread across the two dates. The first session will typically be introductions, icebreakers and creative activities. The second continues with the activity and allows for in-depth dialogue and discussion. Formerly incarcerated individuals will serve as facilitators and guest lecturers along with Draus, Müller and the artists.

The first workshop, which takes place Sept. 13, is titled “Connection” and will be led by Kristin Palm. A journalist, essayist and poet, Palm co-facilitates Writer’s Block, a weekly poetry workshop at Macomb Correctional Facility. In part inspired by her experiences with the Inside-Out program, she recently joined the UM-Dearborn staff as assistant director of Communications. October’s session will feature either visual or performing arts. More details will be shared soon.

Müller said participants can share their experiences and listen to others in an educational space that serves as a platform for social commentary and utopian imagining. “Caring about others is the essence of friendship and citizenship. And, as humans, we are wired to imagine and dream and see beyond the situation we are in,” she said. 

Students in the university’s popular Inside Out course — in which Jones, Hibbler and Kane have all been active guest lecturers or contributors — served as inspiration for the program, Müller said. Facilitators also include Jemal Tipton and Lynn McNeal. 

The Winter 2022 Inside Out class planned several outreach events that included an art exhibit and a community conversation BBQ with police and formerly incarcerated individuals. At the end of the semester, students wanted to continue finding ways to engage with the greater community when it comes to learning about stigmas, resources, social justice efforts and the power that expression has when it comes to tearing down walls. Typically, students would go into the prison for the class, but COVID restrictions have created on-going challenges and the Inside-Out faculty team looked for other ways to create these important human connections.

“Our students saw how creative practice helped them reframe their own circumstances and also break down us versus them distinctions,” Müller said. “That helped them understand themselves better, and recognize the similarities they have to people they once saw as very different.”

Draus said Art and Agency from the Inside Out is designed to encourage people to think critically, learn from perspectives outside of our own and find the common ground necessary to create lasting change.

“Lack of connection with the world is harmful to both individual and collective life. So we wanted to provide a space that allows people to connect to each other in healthy ways, confront the injustices and limitations they experience, and come out of the experience having created something beautiful, something meaningful.”

Interested in attending the free “Art and Agency from the Inside Out” sessions? Choose the dates that work best for you and register here. Registration is not required, but it’s strongly encouraged.

“Art and Agency from the Inside Out” program was made possible by a U-M Arts + the Curriculum grant. Draus and Müller received one of the nine inaugural awards, which promotes the connection between teaching and the arts. Proposals for the program’s second round of funding are due Sept. 26. Grants are available up to $10,000 for individual projects from U-M faculty and staff, and up to $20,000 for teams.

Article by Sarah Tuxbury.