Observations from the Field by Sharon Alexander
The Art Effect engages youth through the arts in a variety of programs. This past year, I had the opportunity to be a part of a teaching team working with teens in a local adolescent offender facility in the Arts for Healing, Arts for Justice Program, supported by the New York State Council on the Arts and Carnegie Hall’s CreativityWorksNYS.
In the artmaking process there’s freedom to make choices, play, and an opportunity to let go; it provides a sense of control, something seldom felt by incarcerated individuals. Those who may not initially show bold passion can turn out to be the most invested in doing well and exploring the arts. We saw youth reluctant to paint finally bring themselves to hold a brush and become absolutely entranced by color mixing and controlling the strokes.
This Arts for Justice program summoned self-reflection in conjunction with art education and allowed incarcerated teens the ability to have their own voices be heard through their art. Teens made clay masks, clay shields, designed sneakers, drawn illustrations, and collaborations. They have been able to represent their experiences, thoughts, fears, hopes, dreams, and more, through carefully planned lessons.
The “A Walk in My Shoes” sneaker design project was a highlight for many of the youth.They were prompted to illustrate how their journey is different from anyone else’s in the world on a white canvas sneaker, using markers and acrylic paint. Their stories and imagery were then written on a paper traced from the sole of the designed shoe. One teen titled their project as “Two Sided – A Suspect. A Victim” and wrote the following: “I’m like the Joker. Joker used to be a nice person who wanted to make people smile and be happy. But people laughed at him so he was mad and started doing bad things. People used to doubt me. A lot of things were going on in my life like losses, suspension and doubting I’m going to make it in life. I started doing bad things like using drugs, fighting, not coming home for days and skipping school. My anger grew because people wouldn’t know or understand why I was angry. And when I explained, it would just make me angrier.” This young adult decided to return to school and pursue a career in graphic design when they are released in October.
The culminating art showcase at the end of this spring’s project session was an opportunity for visiting organizations, facility employees, and all youth in the facility to see what has been created. We encouraged our youth artists to stand behind their work and discuss their creative process. For most teens, this experience was new and clearly transformative. A moment where they can present themselves as a mindful young adult, rather than always being seen as an “Adolescent Offender.” The delight in the room was palpable as the teens proudly talked about their accomplishments and had their voices heard. The teens even received a standing ovation from a room full of supportive adults.
We were all deeply moved at how bravely these students put themselves out there during these artmaking sessions, for both the projects they completed and their internal growth, and I’m looking forward to helping more young artists express themselves as we continue this partnership in the future.
By Sharon Alexander,
Creative Arts Therapist at The Art Effect
Art Project, Two Sided – A Suspect. A Victim
Arts for Healing, Arts For Justice teaching team, Sharon and Adam standing beside Wings of Freedom sculpture created by the youth