Journey to Freedom — Formerly Imprisoned Michigan Artist Shares The Healing Power of Art

Michigan artist Martin Vargas was imprisoned for 45 years for a crime he committed as a minor, with two other teenagers. The artwork he created while incarcerated and since his return home ranges from photorealistic images of people, places, and animals, to his own unique, signature creation of human-like figures titled, “Pudgies,” who embody universal experiences of life.

Much of Vargas’ work is autobiographical and connected to specific moments of crisis, change, or contemplation during his journey to freedom.

charcoal maze of endless, twisting and turning staircases, pitfalls, and platforms depicting his life in prison was presented as a gift from the University of Michigan’s Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP) to Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. In an upper corner of the work, a courtroom railing represents the portal between the world of incarceration and the “normal” world outside. Vargas has embedded symbols of his journey throughout the image, including a mirror, close to the passageway to freedom, representing art, self-possession, and self-reflection. 

When I ask Vargas what he wants our audience to know about him as a person and an artist, he says that he wants them to know he is on the other side of that maze now, free and in the normal world. He wants those on the inside to know that although fear, anger, depression, and desperation are normal in the abnormal environment of prison, freedom is possible. Healing is possible. He is emphatic on this point. And in his art, the power of healing is palpable.

Vargas found shelter, identity, and inspiration making and teaching art while he was incarcerated. His work was exhibited at the University of Michigan through the Prison Creative Arts Project’s (PCAP) Annual Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners for 23 years and numerous solo exhibitions, including shows in Ann Arbor, Lansing, Ypsilanti and East Lansing.  

His work now appears in Michigan galleries and businesses and in private collections as far away as Mexico, Canada, Israel, Germany, and China. The powerful specificity of his depictions of personal experiences resonate deeply with audiences around the globe. Vargas describes his art as a part of a spiritual approach to living that acknowledges the terrible challenges faced by all people, whether those challenges come in the form of peer pressure, abuse, incarceration, or disease.

He remarks that all people face sources of pain and trauma, but through art everyone can “make medicine” and open doorways to more expansive lives. 

While he was in prison and his work was being exhibited in the outside world, Vargas painted a lively depiction of a museum gallery that held his art on the walls and featured Pudgies walking freely through the space. Though he, himself, at the time could not yet be physically present at his own exhibitions, he used art to visualize, mentally create, and embody the space. 

In another painting titled, Making Medicine, a universal human figure stands inside the threshold of an enclosed cave—a tight space—though dark and confining, its walls are adorned with art and the shamanic figure inside performs a healing ritual. A crow in the foreground builds a nest of found materials, including an arrowhead Vargas once encountered in an important, personal moment. Outside the opening of the cave, another crow beckons on the horizon between the blue sky and green of the trees.  

In a later work, his last major painting completed while incarcerated, titled Painting His Way Home, Vargas depicts himself as a large, green Pudgie, embodying new life and rebirth. Like the shamanic figure in Making Medicine, he sits in a tightly confined space, with prison bars visible in the background. On every inch of the walls hang miniature reproductions of his own past artwork, a retrospective of life in prison. Vargas, as a green universal figure, paints an opening into the wall, outside of which we see his future home and the green and lush landscape of the normal life he is creating through his work. This image is powerfully effecting, as is Vargas himself — especially on the day we sat down over Zoom to talk about his art. 

He speaks with generosity and wisdom about the trials of life and the necessity of knowing who you are and creating a vision for your own life. He continues to advocate for those who are still incarcerated by sharing his story through his artwork.

As of July 21, the Associated Press and the Marshall Project reported at least 70,717 positive coronavirus cases and 712 deaths due to COVID-19 in American prisons. Vargas remarked during our interview that it is very hard to get medical problems adequately diagnosed and treated while incarcerated, because the acknowledgement by medical staff that a prisoner has a problem carries a responsibility for them to treat that problem. 

Admitting you are sick is also a risk for prisoners who are concerned about appearing vulnerable or being even further isolated. After a slowing down of infections in early summer, positive test cases are reaching all time highs in late July. Vargas argues that fear is a very real health concern right now; and, at present, fear from both staff and the incarcerated are the biggest concerns he sees running rampant inside prisons. Isolation is being magnified to levels never before seen in those spaces, and Vargas says that this should be a concern “viewed with as high a priority as the virus itself.”

During our conversation, Vargas described the joy he experiences being back home and running simple errands out in the world. While incarcerated, creating art became a daily practice. Now that he is free, he has been offered a curator’s position with PCAP, he is able to arrange his own exhibits, network with galleries, and navigate the art world on his own terms.   

He described his wonder at the beauty of the “controlled chaos” he sees every day in the flow of traffic and normal human activity, and the rapture of walking the aisles of an art supply store.  The paintings and drawings Vargas created while incarcerated tell the story of his life inside those walls, and the life he has created for himself on the outside was built by each brush stroke and his powerful vision of the future.  

Martin Vargas is currently the Featured Artist at Clinton County Arts in St John’s, Michigan and his work is currently exhibited at the Nicole Tamer Art Gallery in Detroit, the Om Of Medicine In Ann Arbor, and Ledge Craft Lane, in Grand Ledge. His artwork can also be found online at: www.martinvargasarte.com.

Many thanks to Olivia Ordonez for her help producing this piece.

Interview with Artist Martin Vargas

Watch on YouTube

About the Author

Amanda Respess is a PhD candidate in Anthropology and History at the University of Michigan, where she is also completing a Graduate Certificate in Museum Studies. Her dissertation uses shipwreck artifacts from the premodern Maritime Silk Road to explore the global history of medicine. Amanda was a Rackham Public Engagement Fellow at UMMA and is currently a Curatorial Research Center Assistant and Art Handler.

Author Image: Vinod Menon

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