Captivating art

Nov 12, 2003 at 12:00 am

Rising from a plush purple chair at the Maniscalco Gallery in Grosse Pointe, artist Mark Wolak extends his hand with a warm smile. His baby face and soft voice are juxtaposed with a pair of linebacker shoulders wrapped in a sharp black-leather blazer.

He gestures to his paintings hanging on the walls, noting each in meticulous detail, illustrating technique with a sweeping hand, describing the inspiration for each work.

His renderings are deep and introspective — dark, bleak landscapes scraped with tinges of black. They bear a sharp contrast to his other work on display, a small journal filled with brightly colorful paintings. A prolific artist, Wolak is not one to stick with a single genre or theme.

And, unlike many of the other artists whose works are on display at the gallery, Wolak didn’t receive an expensive art education at a prestigious university.

He is completely self-taught, having mastered his craft during the 11 years he spent in prison.

650 for life

Mark Wolak loved doodling as a kid. As early as age 11 he was producing impressively lifelike photo-realist pencil drawings. When adolescence crept in, Wolak pushed the sketch pad aside in favor of his new love, the guitar.

By the time he reached his 30s, Wolak realized he’d never be a rock star, but continued to pursue music for his own enjoyment. He was working as a stonemason, studying martial arts and spending hours each day playing guitar. Friends and family describe him as mild-mannered, well-liked, a good friend to have around.

It was one car trip to Taylor that changed the course of his life.

One night in 1989, Wolak went along for a ride with a friend who was looking to score some cocaine. He insists that he never used drugs, and he never wanted to procure drugs for himself that night; he says he knew his friend intended to buy, but claims he had no idea of the amount — and neither of them knew that the people selling the drugs were actually undercover cops.

Wolak was charged with conspiracy to possess more than 650 grams of a controlled substance. In addition to being in the wrong place at the wrong time, he was in the wrong state. At the time, Michigan was home to some of the most draconian drug laws in the nation, rivaled only by New York’s. Wolak was charged under the highly controversial “650-lifer” law, passed in 1973 — a conviction meant a mandatory life sentence with no eligibility of parole.

At first, Wolak didn’t sweat. He had proof that he hadn’t uttered a single word as the drug deal went down, via transcripts of a conversation between his lawyer and one of the arresting officers. Wolak’s lawyer assured him he’d never get convicted. But that lawyer suffered a stroke and died halfway through the trial; he was replaced with a court-appointed representative. Wolak says the new attorney represented him poorly; she was uninterested and perfunctory.

A tragedy of errors ensued, he says. At one point the judge even admitted that there were inconsistencies in the testimony against Wolak, but the trial was allowed to continue. During final deliberations, the jury asked to see the transcript of the potentially exculpatory conversation between the officer and Wolak’s late attorney. Wolak had the transcript in his hands, but was confined in another room while the jury deliberated. His court-appointed attorney didn’t speak up or offer to fetch the transcript from Wolak. The jury never saw it.

On Oct. 12, 1990, Mark Anthony Wolak was sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole for a nonviolent drug offense.

As Wolak’s deceased lawyer had pointed out, even someone convicted of conspiracy to commit second-degree murder is eligible for parole.

Unquenchable thirst

Wolak describes prison as “horrifying. You live in a house, you have a bathroom? Go in there and lock the door for about three hours. Give it a try. Just sit there and wait and wait. Wait till tomorrow, see if you can do that, then you’ll get a real taste. Now, add a decade.”

Wolak was assigned to a medium-security prison, but was temporarily placed in a maximum-security facility in Jackson because there was no room anywhere else. He describes it as “a butcher shop. People were stabbed every day. When I walked in the first thing I saw was a stretcher covered in blood.”

In 1992, Wolak got a lucky break — sort of. The Michigan Supreme Court ruled that mandatory sentencing under the 650-lifer law constituted cruel and unusual punishment. Under the new ruling, Wolak would be eligible for parole after serving 10 years.

But the good news was tempered by the knowledge that nine more years of prison time stared him in the face.

As soon as he settled in to his new “home” Wolak began to create. Since he could no longer play guitar, he turned to art. Dusting off his childhood drawing skills, he studied the work of masters via art books he unearthed in the prison library. He met a fellow artist, Donald Kevin Gregory, whom Wolak describes as a master photo-realist. Gregory guided him, and Wolak honed his talent with graphite photo-realist drawings for the first three years of his incarceration.

“I reflected on my martial arts training,” he says, “which taught me how to perfect one thing before you move on to the next. When I moved on to watercolor, I worked it very hard until I understood it. About eight years later, I really started to find myself.”

Was art simply a way to pass the time?

“No. I am still like this today. I have to paint. I need it. It’s a thirst I cannot quench. I experienced that before with music — I’ve never half-stepped anything. If something catches my love and interest, that’s it. I’m devoted.”

Wolak’s memories of prison are a blur; he can’t remember exact dates or years.

“My whole memory of the entire experience is sitting at a desk with a pencil or paintbrush. I worked day and night, sometimes 16 hours straight.”

Prison inmates are assigned jobs. Many prisons, however, don’t have enough jobs to go around, and Wolak was content to devote 100 percent of his time to painting.

A close friend showed some of Wolak’s work to the director of the Detroit Artists Market, which accepted 12 of his pieces and sold half. More sales ensued.

“People that work within the correctional system purchased my work numerous times,” Wolak recalls. “In [prison], I’d say the average income of somebody with a little job the state gives them is $13 or $14 a month, and you have to buy everything — toothpaste, deodorant, cigarettes. So if you sell a painting for a hundred bucks, that’s rich in there, that’s a big score.”

When Wolak began selling his work, other inmates took notice. Some approached him in the hopes of learning — and making a buck. Wolak was willing to teach them a few things, but maintained a distance.

“If somebody’s got that in their being, you can’t stop them — and if they don’t, you can’t help them. You plant a seed, and if it grows, it’s growing on its own.”

Once he reached his stride, Wolak’s craving for art became voracious.

“The only thing I remember about 1997 is that it was my most prolific year. I did over 400 paintings in that year, more than one a day.”

Wolak’s styles morphed at a lighting pace. His graphite photo-realism trickled into abstract dreamscapes, some reminiscent of Salvador Dali and Marc Chagall. In a self-portrait, Wolak surrounds his haunted gaze with twisted faces and wry caricatures of the justice system. His body is pierced by prison bars, much as Frida Kahlo depicted herself impaled with poles from the bus accident that crippled her.

Wolak moved on to expressionism through acrylic paints; he was forbidden the use of oil paints, because they require turpentine — a potential weapon.

One of Wolak’s most intimate phases is a series of journals, each page filled with its own work of art. Because acrylic paint dries quickly, Wolak could complete numerous works in just a few hours. Some are dated with the hour and time; one 100-page book was completed in a month. Most pages are abstract, with thick, dark swaths of color peppered with splashes of white and orange. A consistent theme is a blank figure trapped in a box or surrounded by tote marks — the kind prisoners etch into cell walls to count the days.

“Pretty bleak stuff, huh?” Wolak comments as he flips through the pages.

Providing a voice

Wolak doesn’t remember exactly when he hooked up with the University of Michigan’s Prisoner Creative Arts Project (PCAP), but he’ll never forget the people with whom he worked.

“They’re saints,” he says simply. “They work very hard for nothing to help us.”

U-M literature professor Buzz Alexander had conducted arts workshops in prison since 1991. In 1994, he and his wife, U-M art professor Janie Paul, decided to curate an exhibit of art created by Michigan prisoners.

“We were blown away by the amount of art — really good art — we found,” says Alexander.

In its eighth year, the 2002 show exhibited work from 182 artists from 38 Michigan prisons.

“The exhibit has led to tremendous growth of art produced in Michigan prisons,” says Alexander. “You will not find anything comparable in other states. It’s a very amazing phenomenon.”

Paul says, “We know people [inmates] who work all year for the show. It’s one of the things that keeps them going.”

The exhibit has become so popular among inmates that the organizers had to set some limits.

“We don’t accept everything, it’s very selective,” she says. “In some cases the skill level may be low, but what we’re looking for is something very personal and distinctive. Some works are very raw and primitive, and some are highly accomplished.”

Since imprisoned artists can’t attend, the exhibit’s opening is videotaped. Guests are encouraged to comment on the works either on camera or in a guest book. After the show, each artist gets a packet that includes a copy of the videotape and guest book, a list of the artists, and any press and reviews the artist may have received.

“We’ve heard stories about how people keep their packets under their beds or carry them around,” says Paul. “It’s really a way of affirming the artist.”

“A lot of people in prison didn’t make it through middle school, and for them to be exhibiting their work at U-M, I can’t tell you how remarkable that feels to them,” adds Alexander.

The PCAP program also encompasses literature, poetry and playwriting. Both Alexander and Paul train U-M students who go into prisons to conduct art, literature and playwriting workshops. PCAP also has a program that links paroled inmates with volunteer mentors in the community.

Jerry Moore is a PCAP artist who was paroled three months ago after serving 10 years for conspiracy to commit murder. He’s waiting to be paired with a mentor.

“It [PCAP] helped keep my social skills up to par. PCAP and other programs like it provide an atmosphere that’s different from the typical setting in prison,” says Moore, who lives in Ypsilanti and is continuing to pursue his art. “In prison you can feel abandoned and lose hope, and however minuscule [a program] might be, it has a gigantic effect on people. It gives them something to look forward to, and it breaks up the monotony of the prison environment.

“Anytime they need to do [budget] cuts, programs for prisoners are the first thing to go. Cutting these programs could severely impede the growth of prisoners and derail the transition of prisoners going back into society.”

Herschel Turner is the only art instructor in the entire Michigan correctional system. He teaches at two prisons in Ionia, and works closely with PCAP.

Turner has achieved great success in Ionia, but acknowledges staff at other facilities might not welcome an art workshop.

“Their thinking might be, ‘Well, my kid in school doesn’t even have art classes, so why should these prisoners?’” says Turner. “But the point of the correctional system is to help the individual correct their actions and behavior — and believe me, I know that art does just that.”

Paul and Alexander hope to provoke thought and perhaps alter attitudes with the U-M exhibit.

“The art show is about giving a voice to people who are inside, and to raise the question, ‘Who are we putting in prison, and why?’” says Paul. “It makes people question the simplistic ways that we’re encouraged to think: ‘People in prison are bad; we’re good.’ Or ‘They’re not human.’ Things are much more complicated than that. By showing what ‘those people’ are doing, it makes you question who ‘those people’ really are.

“Every piece is done by someone who has a real story,” continues Paul. “It raises real questions about who we’re locking up. These are people who slipped through the cracks, who often didn’t get a good education. What if they had that to start with? Would they still be in prison?”

Life on the outside

Wolak became eligible for parole in 2001. Paul and Alexander spoke at his hearing, where Wolak says his artwork was dismissed as child’s play.

“[The parole board] said something like, ‘Okay, so let me get this straight, you draw little pictures on pieces of paper, and you think you’re going to be an artist?’”

Wolak replied, “Well, sir, I am an artist,” and produced one of his works, prompting the prosecutor to state for the record: “Let it be known there is one very fine pencil drawing presented.”

Still, Wolak was chided, told, “You need to get a real job.”

Angered by the board’s condescending tone toward Wolak’s work, the normally soft-spoken Paul defended Wolak as a serious, gifted artist.

Or, as Wolak puts it, “She really ripped them a new asshole.”

“Mark is probably our biggest success story,” says Paul. “He’s just an extremely gifted artist, very intense, and extremely motivated and productive. We saw him really experimenting with his art. I think this is one of the reasons he got out of prison.”

Parole was granted, and after 11 years, Wolak walked out of prison a free man on June 15, 2001.

On Christmas Day 2002, Gov. John Engler signed a package of bills that abolished Michigan’s most stringent drug laws, and replaced them with more flexible sentencing guidelines. The 650-lifer law that sent Wolak to prison for over a decade is no longer on the books.

Laura Sager is the executive director of the national organization Families Against Mandatory Minimums and actively fought the 650-lifer law while she headed the Michigan branch of FAMM.

“I think [Wolak’s] is the kind of case that helps the Legislature and public understand that mandatory sentencing overreached,” she says. “It didn’t get drug kingpins as the Legislature had intended, but got to many low level nonviolent offenders.

“Unfortunately, there are still individuals in prison serving far too long for these offenses, at a very high cost to taxpayers, and a loss to the community.”

Paul concurs: “We know absolutely heart-wrenching stories of people like Mark, people who got conned into delivering a package. Maybe they did something stupid, but to keep someone in prison for 20 years for one stupid mistake is incredibly punitive — and expensive.”

Returning to the community after a long incarceration is a jarring experience, but Wolak transitioned easily. He credits much of his success to his father, who was staunchly supportive throughout the ordeal, both emotionally and financially. Teofil “Ted” Wolak supplied his son with art supplies while in prison, and converted his basement into an art studio for his son after he was released.

Wolak says he “went straight to work. The second day I was out, I said to my dad, ‘You have to drive me to the art-supply store!’”

He exhibited his first one-man show three months after he left prison, at the City Gallery in Mount Clemens.

Julie Hines had known Wolak since the first grade, and remained friends with him through his time in prison. She attended the opening of his first show.

“Did you ever have the experience of seeing something that steals your thoughts?” Wolak muses. “I was standing there, in the middle of my first show, and then she’s standing there, and suddenly everything is gone, and …” Wolak trails off, and shakes his head, his eyes wide. “It was just … wow. I wish I could have painted that moment.”

Julie is now Julie Hines-Wolak. The couple celebrated their first wedding anniversary in August. Wolak is now a stepfather to her three children.

“It was devastating to everyone who knew him,” says Hines-Wolak of her husband’s conviction and incarceration. “Mark has such a wonderful heart, he would never hurt anybody. [The kids] all love him so much, and they love his art.”

For Wolak, a difficult aspect of adjusting to life outside prison was losing his ability to paint 16 hours a day. He now works 50-hour weeks at a tile distributor. After coming home from work, he grabs a quick bite to eat, and heads to his studio to paint for three or four hours.

“I hope one day a paintbrush will deliver me from this lifestyle. Not that I hate this lifestyle,” he quickly adds. “I enjoy being able to work, I feel lucky to have this job and to bring home money for my wife and for these kids I adore … but what I’d really like to do is pursue art as a career.”

Artist Angela Giorgio met Wolak through mutual friends. The two became fast friends, and when Wolak visited Giorgio’s apartment, he noted her current work on large pieces was hindered by the confines of her small apartment. He invited her to share half of his studio.

“My first impression of him was that he was far too humble for someone so talented,” says Giorgio. “He helped preserve my belief in never giving up. Coming out of art school and having to take a job that isn’t related to art, having to push it to the side, that’s very frustrating, and sometimes you almost want to give up.

“But after meeting him, I don’t want to give up, and I never will.”

After his success at City Gallery, Wolak began shopping around for new venues, and was drawn to the Maniscalco Gallery in Grosse Pointe.

Owner Robert Maniscalco didn’t learn of Wolak’s past until they had begun discussing his work.

“I had to think for a moment if I wanted to get involved with an ex-felon,” Maniscalco recalls with a sheepish laugh, “but that was just a fleeting moment’s thought. I was immediately seduced by his talent; he’s someone who didn’t just throw a bunch of paint around and call it abstraction. He came across as someone who was very thoughtful and intense and very serious about what he was trying to do. There is nothing casual in his approach, and his work shows that.

“When you look at Mark’s work, you feel like you’re in good hands. He’s not just jabbing colors in there for the hell of it. He’s got more integrity than most of the people I’ve had the pleasure of dealing with.”

Wolak’s likability is infectious. He’s inquisitive and garrulous and will eagerly wax philosophical for hours on every topic from reincarnation to the corporatization of the art world.

The latter is a sore spot for Wolak, whose work has been labeled by some as “outsider art.”

“What kind of a term is that?” he scoffs. “Outside of what?”

Furthermore, Wolak fears being forever labeled as a “prison artist.”

His prison background is mentioned in his bio for the Maniscalco Gallery.

“There is a niche for people who collect ‘prisoner art,’” says Maniscalco. “I suppose it could be chalked up to guilty liberals who like to brag.

“With Mark, every day that goes by, he moves farther from being a prison artist. Most of the art that’s on the walls [of this gallery] was done after he was out of prison. It’s a backstory, and I think it’s time to move it to the rear. The real story is the art.”

Wolak asks, “Who cares that Basquiat slept in a cardboard box, or that Rembrandt was a drunk? Why can’t it just be about the art?”

Perhaps most surprising of all is Wolak’s complete lack of bitterness. He has a Zen-like approach to his life trajectory.

“I was enraged, constantly, for a long, long time,” says Wolak. “The people who arrested me, I used to look for their names in the obituaries every day so I could celebrate. I was constantly angry — but that burned out of me. I’m too busy to be angry. I have my family. I have things to do. I have a life. I have to paint.”

Wolak even feels lucky in some ways.

“I strongly suspect these things are etched in stone,” he says of his fate. “I have my wife, I have my art … I had the opportunity to just stop … to stop and stand still for a moment. A lot of people don’t get to just stop and think, ‘Who are we? Where are we going?’ and think about the answers. I did.”


Mark Wolak’s work remains on display at the Maniscalco Gallery, 17728 Mack Ave., Grosse Pointe. For more information on the PCAP program, visit

Sarah Klein is a Metro Times staff writer. E-mail her at [email protected]