Art Works Blog

Best of 2017: Through Painting, Incarcerated Youth Find Freedom

Most food tables at gallery openings include some iteration of wine and cheese. But at County Missives: Expressive Works from Incarcerated Juveniles Adjudicated as Adults, installed last spring at the Lufrano Intercultural Gallery at the University of North Florida (UNF), there was a table display of instant ramen, sleeves of Saltines, packaged bacon, and buffalo wing-flavored pretzels.

The food items represented the favorite commissary snacks of the County Missives artists, all of whom were male, juvenile inmates at the John E. Goode Pre-Trial Detention Facility in Jacksonville, Florida. The youth, adjudicated as adults because of the severity of their charges, created the paintings while participating in Cathedral Arts Project (CAP)’s Juvenile Justice Arts Program, which began in 2014 with support from the National Endowment for the Arts.

The program hosts twice-weekly painting classes for participants, who learn about the history, techniques, and principles behind Abstract Expressionism, and apply these lessons to paintings they create on their own and collaboratively as a group.

Artist Tony Rodrigues, who has been the primary instructor since the program began, chose to focus on Abstract Expressionism because the style doesn’t necessarily require particular skill in painting or drawing. “It allows the individual young man to express himself without having to articulate in words or with a specific skill set in visual arts,” said Allison Galloway-Gonzalez, CAP’s chief program officer and executive director of the organization’s Any Given Child program. “It’s something that you can walk into very easily, become confident in very quickly, and be able to communicate [through] very quickly.”

To help explore painting’s communicative channels, Rodrigues teaches how color theory, composition, and titling a painting can all help convey a certain mood or message. “They are asked to think about their motivations and their feelings—often for the first time,” said Galloway-Gonzalez. “As much as they paint, they go through a lot of analytical exercises together,” she said, and are guided through self-reflection and thoughtful decisions about their work.

This process is the first step in beginning to see a different alternative to the instincts and behaviors that may have led participants to the Pre-Trial Detention Facility in the first place. “It gives them an ability to have a non-violent way to express how they’re feeling, which maybe before they didn’t have the tools [to do],” said Forrest Holland, chief marketing officer at CAP. “They'll also experience critiques, and in those critiques, everyone has a difference in opinion. It allows them to be vulnerable, but to also learn that other people and even they can respectfully disagree or agree. It gives them an outlet that allows them to escape or express themselves in a constructive way.”

As illuminating as this might be on a personal level, it can be equally eye-opening for students to see their peers participating in this process, particularly as they work together on a shared canvas to create group paintings. “What we hear from students often is that an ability to express themselves creatively has not been something that’s been accepted for them before,” said Galloway-Gonzalez, noting that most came from environments where male participants in the arts might draw ridicule or worse. “It’s been about being the ultra-masculine persona. [Interacting with each other] has not been about teamwork to create something beautiful and expressive. [It’s been about] teamwork as a part of competition.”

The hope, of course, is that the skills learned throughout the program will extend beyond the art studio—a hope supported by a growing body of research that arts programs in justice facilities can help reduce recidivism rates, increase self-esteem, and improve social interactions and emotional health. "I think the first step in these young men’s next part of their lives, if it’s going to be successful, has to be [realizing] that they don’t have to be and act and perform the way they thought they had to to survive," said Galloway-Gonzalez, noting that they often hear from students that this is one of the first places they have fully been able to be themselves, without judgement. Participating in the arts “allows them to see that they can be a lot of different things than they thought, and still be accepted,” she said.

The exhibition at UNF, and an earlier exhibition at the CAP gallery space, helped reinforce the idea that students could be and accomplish more than what they once imagined. “As this exhibition unfolded, every part became a new door opening,” said Galloway-Gonzalez. “They were surprised that they could make [canvases] this large. They were surprised about all the work that went into everything. Then they were surprised that people showed up to the opening.” Even Jerry Saltz, the senior art critic for New York magazine, liked photos posted on Instagram of the students’ paintings—again, another surprise for participants that anyone, particularly a notable art figure, might take interest in their work.

In some ways, there was similar surprise among community members who attended the show—including several correctional officers who work with the young men. “I think there’s some expectation when you walk in the door that you're going to see children’s artwork— incarcerated juvenile artwork,” said Galloway-Gonzalez. “The work is full of emotion—and not just frustration. It becomes this very enlightening moment when you realize all of the layers of emotion and personality underneath what we as society have put away as this type of person. We've had tears, we've had people that feel like they changed their perception of who these young men might be.”

CAP hopes to eventually tour the exhibition nationally, and show people that through the arts, these young men “are given the opportunity to see a larger view of the world beyond their neighborhood, city, state or even culture,” as the County Missives exhibition materials state. In the meantime, Rodrigues will continue to work with the young men of Duval County. As he wrote in a year-end program evaluation, “On and on we will go, painting, discussing paintings, looking out the window, talking and listening and learning.”

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