U-M English prof William “Buzz” Alexander believes the annual Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners is the largest exhibit of prisoner art not just in the nation but in the world. Last year, almost 4,000 people attended. For this year’s exhibit, on display through April 6 at the Duderstadt Center Gallery on North Campus, Alexander and his wife, art prof Janie Paul, selected 325 visual works of art out of thousands submitted by prisoners throughout Michigan.
Alexander’s Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP) sponsors the exhibit along with other creative arts programs—writing, theater—for prisoners. “We travel all over the state to the prisons and, about half the time, get to meet with the artists, talk with them, discuss their work, and select what we think is their best work,” says Alexander. At seventy-two, a lanky six foot three, he often teaches in jeans and a flannel shirt.
In his recently published book Is William Martinez Not Our Brother? Twenty Years of the Prison Creative Arts Project, Alexander eloquently describes the project’s transformative potential for the incarcerated artists. “The public despises them, the prisons humiliate them, they have done damage in their families and communities, and we put their work on a wall in a prestigious university,” he writes. “An important and growing piece of them is acknowledged.”
Paintings in this year’s exhibit that particularly moved him, he says, include a circus scene by Sam Henley, incarcerated in Carson City north of Lansing. The painting, says Alexander, incorporates a clown representing Henley’s deceased brother, “who he describes as a person of great humor, a joker.” Another artist, Josh Cole, imprisoned in Adrian, created what Alexander describes as “two remarkable pieces, graphic paintings on the theme of the [Gulf of Mexico BP] oil spill.”
“Buzz is amazing,” a former student writes on RateMyProfessor.com. “I’m years out of college and still email him to say hi. His courses on prison literature, etc. are once-in-a lifetime opportunities and he lives for this work.” Several other students echo this sentiment, though one grumbles, “This man is more interested in our ‘feelings’ than actual studies in English.”
Two ex-prisoners speak emotionally about the experience of having their paintings shown in the PCAP exhibit. Robert Dockter, now out for seven months, recalls his shock and joy when the first painting he did was not only exhibited but sold. Dockter, who had never painted before, used the money to buy art supplies. Elizabeth Miklosovic, released five months ago, says intensely that Alexander and Paul “literally gave me a reason to live. I had a purpose. I was doing something important with my life.”
“My mother said that I never crawled,” says Alexander. “I started running at nine months. So whatever you call it, I have a high metabolism, I guess, kind of physically and emotionally.” Raised in the affluent Chicago suburb of Wilmette, he was bullied by other kids on his block; on one occasion, they threw stones at him. “It’s a mystery [why],” he reflects now. “Blond curly hair? The name of Buzz?”
The second of seven kids, Alexander has sided with the underdog ever since. “So I would hate the Chicago Bulls, the New York Yankees—any team that was triumphant.” He also recalls that his parents, conservative Republicans, emphasized civic duty, thinking democratically, and the importance of valuing everyone.
Admitted to several top colleges in 1956, he chose Harvard because it allowed students to have a car on campus. He drove his 1940 Dodge Coupe to Cambridge, where he majored in English.
After graduation, he studied in Cambridge, England; taught in Italy for a year; and then returned to Harvard, where he received his PhD in 1967 (his thesis was on nineteenth-century critic and author William Dean Howells). He taught at Harvard for four years, then moved on to the U-M English department in 1971.
He taught writing at first, but his interest shifted to film studies. From creating videos with students related to labor issues, he eventually arrived at political guerrilla theater. In 1990, he brought his “Theater and Social Change” class to the former Florence Crane Women’s Facility in Coldwater. So successful was the interaction—the women later formed their own theater troupe—that Alexander formed PCAP to carry it on. The program, says Alexander, “has really consumed me and been my vocation since.”
His U-M classes also engage with social issues. Students in English 310 volunteer in youth facilities and urban high schools, then create an artistic project based on the experience—perhaps an art exhibition, dance performance, or poetry reading. (Paul offers a parallel course in the art school.) English 319, Literature and Social Change, is a theater class that goes into youth facilities, high schools, and prisons.
Though Alexander and Paul have no children of their own, he has a grown son and daughter from a prior marriage. Several years ago, the couple moved from Ann Arbor to rural Webster Township.
Alexander’s father worked until just shy of his ninety-fifth birthday at the family law firm, but his son insists, “I don’t want to be working as long as my dad.” He keeps in touch with some of the prison artists when they are released and is gratified that a few, as free citizens, have exhibited in galleries. Some also will speak at the exhibit this year, among them Miklosovic, who will not let a terminal illness stop her from traveling a long distance to be here. “Thanks to the program,” she says, “art is a really big part of my life.”