Magazine article Humanities

Stories IN STONE

Magazine article Humanities

Stories IN STONE

Article excerpt

MICHIGAN EARLY IN THE MORNING, A TRAIN ROARS past Armory Arts Village-a resident artists' community in Jackson. Although the train passes less than a mile away, inside the armory you can hear only a muffled whistle. The walls are lined with three feet of woven steel, so very little sound seeps in.

The walls attest to the building's origins as a state prison, as do the barred windows, the three remaining guard turrets, and the sprawling, brightly colored murals that greet visitors coming to see both what the prison was and what it has become.

The eight murals hang in Armory Arts' West Hall, depicting the prison's evolution from a cluster of wooden buildings and a tamarack-pole fence in 1839 to a virtual city-within-a-city that transformed Jackson into an industrial powerhouse in the early twentieth century.

Resident artists Jean Weir and Hector Trujillo painted the murals with support from a Michigan Humanities grant. Resident and founder and owner of Jackson Historic Prison Tours, Judy Gail Krasnow, served as historical director of the project.

"The murals make a big statement," Weir says. "We took all this information and tried to document it and now there's a visual record of it, here in its home."

The painters drew directly from historical photographs, working from as many as twenty images for each vignette that wasn't directly copied. The smaller murals include depictions of a wagonload of prisoners arriving at the original wooden structure, a chain gang laboring in a field under the watchful eye of a guard, and the prison baseball team posing for a group portrait. The largest of these composite images, eighteen-feet in length, depicts the prison during its heyday. The beautiful administrative building-designed by Elijah E. Myers, the same architect responsible for three state capitolsspreads behind a verdant lawn where townspeople gathered to hear the prison band. Smokestacks from the factories housed within the prison's walls loom in the background.

Honestly presenting the prison's history is a challenge for those involved in telling its story, as accounts of violence and cruelty intermingle with humorous and heartwarming anecdotes.

The prison's baseball team consistently defeated bigname teams brought to play them. The talent of the prison's tailors, all inmates, was so renowned that women brought their daughters from Ann Arbor to have their wedding dresses made. …

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