It’s called outsider art, but the men who create it are “inside,” residents of Northwest Indiana’s state prison at Michigan City. But the beauty of these inmates’ creations doesn’t always reflect the grim reality of their lives behind bars.
Consider John Applegate, who, at 38, has been in prison at Michigan City since 2002. In that time, Applegate estimates that he has painted between 250 and 300 images, everything from landscapes to animals to portraits. But the painting of which he is most proud so far is one that he completed recently, a black-and-white image in which he melded the features of President Barack Obama and those of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Even in jail, Applegate said, he found himself inspired by Obama’s historic election. The long hours in his cell melted away as he gave form to his thoughts about America’s first African-American president.
“That Obama painting, when I first started it, I just sat there and some hours passed. I had no clue what time it was,” said Applegate, who is originally from Fort Wayne, during a recent interview at the prison. “And, before I knew it, there it was. The thing I saw in my head was right there in front of me, and that is what I loved about it. That one right there, I have an attachment to it.”
Though entirely self-taught, Applegate is no hack, and anyone who sees his work would find it difficult to call him an amateur. Helen Gabriel, supervisor of education at the Michigan City prison, attested to the fact that Applegate has placed his artwork in esteemed juried shows.
“There was a juried art exhibit one time, and John Applegate had one of his paintings accepted into it,” she recalled. “One of his teachers and I went to the show, and as we were walking around, we heard people saying, ‘Yes, I feel really fortunate to get into this show. This is really hard to get into.’ And there was Mr. Applegate’s painting!
“To me, it’s that one step that gives them legitimacy, the fact that other people are looking at their art, and not just us behind the walls,” Gabriel said. “We’re like family when we say, ‘Oh, you’re doing a good job.’ But if somebody else takes a look at this, and they purchase it or ask to have it … that legitimizes it for them.”
Applegate’s paintings are among the works on exhibit in the new show “Artists Within: Outsider Art from Behind the Walls of Indiana State Prison, Michigan City,” which is sponsored by Indiana University Northwest in cooperation with South Shore Arts.
The show opened on Friday, March 6, at Substation #9, located at 435 Fayette St. in Hammond. The Substation is open for visitors Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. until 3 p.m., and viewings by appointment are available by calling (219) 933-0200 or (219) 836-1839, ext. 108. “Artists Within” runs through April 17.
“We have limited resources, but we also have limited opportunities,” said Applegate, who is part of the 20-plus member Artists’ Guild at the prison. “But more recently, in the last few years, we’ve had some great opportunities to show our art and share it with the public.”
Venues for Applegate and his fellow artists have included the Lubeznik Center for the Arts in Michigan City and that community’s Lakefront Art Festival, as well as galleries in Michigan.
“I tell the other artists that are here how difficult it is for an artist outside of prison even to get into a gallery, and how difficult it is to get an exclusive showing in a gallery,” Applegate said. “Here were are with these opportunities … and I’m telling them that this legitimizes you. You should feel like you are a legitimate artist. You are recognized. You are in these galleries, and the public is seeing your work.”
“Artists Within” originally was slated for exhibit in Gallery Northwest at the university’s Tamarack Hall, but that venue was closed due to flooding damage sustained last fall. South Shore Arts agreed to host the show at its Hammond exhibit space, instead.
IU Northwest Gallery Curator Ann Fritz first became aware of the work being done at the Michigan City prison after seeing a few pieces of it at Lubeznik. After speaking with some of the artists and reviewing their work, Fritz came away impressed by the skill and variety of subjects displayed by the inmates, many of whom have never had formal training.
“It’s outsider art, and that’s an upcoming genre,” Fritz said. “Every year, I try to showcase a different group, and this is the group I chose. Last year, we had graffiti art.”
“It’s a community show,” she explained. “The prison is part of the community we serve, part of the seven-county Northwest Indiana area.”
The curator acknowledged that some art patrons might consider artwork from prison inmates to be an unusual choice of show for a university gallery. But the quality of the work itself, and the humanity of the men who created it, warrant an audience, Fritz said.
“They’re humans,” she said. “Although they’ve done something terrible to be in there, they’re still human beings. And any time you show your artwork, you get a feeling of pride. It does something for your ego and makes you feel so good about yourself.”
For men whose world and society are confined behind an imposing barrier of brick and steel, art can serve several purposes, regardless of whether it’s seen by anyone on the street. For Kyle Fike, 22, who’s been at Michigan City for more than two years, his greeting-card art is not just a welcome distraction but also a thriving business.
“Valentine’s Day is tougher than birthdays, Christmas, or any of it put together,” said Fike, a native Californian, during an interview that took place just a few days before that holiday of hearts. Fike takes orders from other inmates for specially designed cards that they can send to girlfriends, children, or other family members and friends. Some of Fike’s designs are on display in “Artists Within.”
“Right now, I’m so backed up on things,” he said of his order list. ”These cell houses have hundreds and hundreds of people in them, and I’ve got people from every cell house that deal with me all the time. We’re always exchanging and doing business.”
Fike admitted that he’s been in and out of correctional institutions of one type or another since age 12, and said he only ever took one art class, in fifth grade. He credited his father’s fondness for drawing with first giving him an interest in art, but Fike said he’s had ample time to refine his skills since coming to Michigan City.
“I’m just doing what I do to survive,” said Fike, whose favorite recent drawing was not a greeting card but a sketch of himself with his three-year-old daughter, Destiny. “Our people on the street look out for us, but they’re not able to be there all the time. It’s good to have something to do around here.”
Another Artists’ Guild member, a painter who identified himself as Mr. Ford, said he fulfills requests from fellow inmates for paintings, many of them portraits that are sent to the offenders’ families.
“Sometimes people will come to us with four or five pictures, and they want us to put them all together (in one painting),” said Ford, 55, a native of Arizona. “Sometimes they want to change how they look, or, if they have their prison clothes on, they want us to put a suit on them (in the painting).
“A lot of times, you get requests here from guys who are trying to please their families … their wife or maybe their mother,” he continued. “They want them to know that they love them and are thinking about them. They try to create a picture that will be a surprise for them when they get it. It’s always good when they come back and say, ‘My mother started crying,’ or ‘My sister really loved that painting.’ It does a lot for us.”
Ford said he’s had an interest in drawing since he won second place in an art-magazine contest at age 11. He began painting more recently, and Ford conceded that he still has much to learn about the form. One of his favorite recent pieces is a colorful yet somber depiction of the Virgin Mary kneeling at the foot of Christ’s cross, with only the wooden base and its shadow visible in the image.
“Once you learn to mix paints and come up with different colors, I think you can do a lot better,” Ford said. “That’s what I’m trying to work on at the moment.”
Gabriel, who has worked at the prison since 1995, said the Artists’ Guild and other creative outlets for the inmates, such as book groups, allow the men to focus on positive concepts and ideas, instead of dwelling on the negative aspects of their lives. She conceded that some people on the outside question her about the need for education programs for convicts, but Gabriel stressed that many of the men in Michigan City’s prison will eventually emerge from incarceration back into society.
“Even if they don’t leave, they’re better prisoners, because you have them thinking about other things: what they can do to improve their lives, what they can do here,” she said.
Ball State University and Grace Bible College both offer post-secondary programs for Michigan City inmates, and Gabriel reported that about 16 percent of them possess a degree. About 60 percent of the men have a GED, up from 50 percent when she arrived in 1995, she said.
“This is our community right here,” Gabriel said. “You look at your community and ask, ‘What does the community need?’ This is their life. This is their home. And they needed something to keep them busy and to address their creative side. So that’s how we started the Artists’ Guild.”
Gabriel noted that she does not solicit shows or venues for the Artists’ Guild members, and said that, when galleries or other organizations approach her about featuring their art, she has to get official permission from prison authorities to allow the work to be shown. The Indiana Department of Correction takes a percentage from any sales the inmates make, just like an agent or gallery would, she said.
“That means there is a lesser amount left for the offender, but it’s still more than what they make here,” Gabriel said. “So anything more is good for them. Especially the artists, because it gives them more money to buy supplies for their art work.”
Fritz said the “Artists Within” show features a number of different styles and forms, including paints, drawings and sculptures. Topics include everything from what she called “fantasy women” drawings to sculptures created with Popsicle sticks. One inmate’s contribution consists of African masks patterned after authentic tribal designs.
“One man created a birdhouse that is a replica of the house he grew up in,” Fritz said. “It’s really cute.”
For some of the Artists’ Guild members, art has grown from a way to pass their days in confinement to a lifetime calling. They work to learn new concepts and skills so that they may create ever more striking and elaborate images.
Whether he’s on the inside or on the street, Applegate said, he’ll never stop painting.
“This is the first thing that I’ve done that is something that I enjoy doing, and that I don’t look upon as a burden,” he said. “It’s not like you have to do this, in terms of work or things you don’t have a real passion to do. It’s something that I have in my life that is never going to go away. As long as I can do it, I’m going to do it.
“I believe that, if I had been doing this before I was incarcerated, I wouldn’t be here right now,” Applegate concluded. “I would have found my passion. But it took coming here to help me find my passion.”