OHIO: Brush with the law becomes artful rehabilitation for young offenders

Artistic therapy in juvenile detention

Art courses at the juvenile detention center provide
youthful offenders with a potential new career field
that the youngsters may never have considered,

justice officials say.

Their faces scrunch in confusion and doubt. Splayed on the tables in front of them are the materials: 24 inches of aluminum foil, one wooden ruler, one set of plastic safety scissors. The assignment: Make a man.

Several of the teens here in F block known as the most troubled of the delinquents in Lucas County's Juvenile Detention Center slump back in their seats, arms jammed across their government-issued T-shirts. One plants his face in the crook of his arm, immovable.

"Ma-a-annn," he grumbles to no one in particular.

Teacher Jan Revill knows well this reluctance and a tiny smile creeps across her face. She slips a ruler from a table and, around the room, teenage hands begin to reach into their art boxes.

"First," Ms. Revill soothes, "let's do some measuring."

In the world of juvenile justice, judges, counselors and probation officers in Lucas County these days are turning to watercolors and sculpting clay as a way to get through to some of its toughest young criminals.

Seventeen-year-old Jose, a possession of marijuana recently added to his growing rap sheet, isn't impressed. His foil isn't cooperating this morning, and he's tired of staring at these stupid walls.

"I think it's just there to take up time," he says of the art class, his fingers fumbling over the silvery sheet.

But, he adds: "I guess it's better than doing nothing."

A few blocks away, at the Lucas County Youth Treatment Center in downtown Toledo, 44 offenders with felony records file into Nicole Brandstrup's art class weekly. Using pencils, acrylics, and even discarded puzzle pieces, they tackle otherwise daunting topics like "victim empathy," "identity formation," and "criminal thinking."

What the kids lack in clinical vernacular, they compensate with oils and canvass, glue and construction paper.

"It's not just sitting down with art, because art is fun, although that's a nice way to get these kids interested," Ms. Brandstrup says. Her only rule for the artwork in her classroom is that "it's true and honest about you."

Art, she says, can crack open doors that previously have been sealed as tightly as the heavy steel security doors along these brick hallways.

"Art has power and impact they can't deny," the teacher says. "They are solely responsible for what they make in there. It stares them back at their face now we can change it, talk about it, manipulate it," she says.

Take one particular painting from a former resident. It's the eyes that get you first.

They are round and gaping and horrible.

Drop your gaze a few inches, and it's then that you see the bloody knife in the figure's hand. Along its arms are stark red gashes.

Translated into strokes of bold acrylic, the young artist reveals he'd been self-mutilating, a dangerous practice that some youths apparently use to block out other pain. It was the first time he'd "told" anyone of it.

Another day, Ms. Brandstrup handed out clay. Explore victimization, she instructed.

One young sculptor placed a human figure on his knees in front of a second figure, who aimed a gun into the face of the first. Both faces bore terror.

In another piece, a small clay figure cowers on the floor under another. The young felon, it could be assumed, was the aggressor. He wasn't.

"The boy that day told us how his dad used to hit him with a shoe," Ms. Brandstrup says.

Starting a conversation
Joe Szafarowicz calls it "art as a way to start a conversation."

A retired teacher, he coordinates several art programs for at-risk youth. He gets so excited when he talks about it that his hands are in constant motion punching and poking the air around him.

Mr. Szafarowicz realized long ago that sculptures, painters, and jewelry-designers might be able to engage troubled youth like no social worker or probation officer can.

Like young criminals, he believes, artists are risk-takers. They challenge convention.

Earlier this year, six juveniles from drug court began melting, forming, and designing glass beads at the Toledo Museum of Art under one of his programs.

"It's not going to work for everyone," he acknowledges, "but it's one of our tools. It may be the thing that gets some kid excited when nothing else works."

Beyond its pure expression, art has a practical use, teaching basic skills to kids who have learned life on the streets rather than in a classroom.

There's the proper proportions to make salt dough for the exploding volcanoes and the chemistry of the vermiculite mix that will harden for carving. There's the physics involved in molding heated plastic. And even properly proportioned foil figures require an understanding of simple division and measurements.

The programs may open up career fields like sign making or automotive design that these kids had never considered, Mr. Szafarowicz says.

"Everyone deserves the opportunity to know what's out there and what's available," he says. "It's especially true with these kids."

Two of the students have earned scholarships at the art museum to take classes of their choice, says Greg Jones, director of school of art and design at the Toledo Museum of Art.

Even without the scholarships, the program part of the $13,000 that was spent over the last year on introducing art to substance-abusing teens is an easily justified expense, says Ms. Hodges at the probation office.

At best, manipulating a piece of molten glass will replace a dangerous, costly addiction with a positive, even money-making hobby. At least, it puts fidgety fingers to work.

"Kids aren't in the street when they're busy," she says.

A lesson in gentleness
Certainly, many of these artists have done terrible things.

In this converted cell block on the day the foil men are to take shape, stainless steel toilets line one wall and a bulky juvenile detention officer stands guard behind a security console nearby.

Downstairs, visitors must pass through a metal detector and be buzzed through several sets of heavy security doors.

One boy here stands accused of shooting a 25-year-old man; another is charged with shooting at his father, and a third allegedly took part in a crime spree that injured three men one with a cut throat.

On this day, however, bulky teenage hands cup over the top of the sheets of foil. Proportions for heads and limbs have been measured and cut, and it is time to mold.

The boys begin crinkling the paper-thin metal. "Gently ... gently," Ms. Revill cautions. "It's going to rip a little bit, but it's going to be fine."

Slowly, awkwardly, aluminum heads and necks begin to take shape.

For impulsive teens fueled by instant gratification, art even when the medium is something that usually lines a turkey roasting pan the foil forms offer another critical lesson: patience.

"Here, they make mistakes along the way. They learn to step back, rework their ideas, take ownership," Ms. Revill says later. "Art is a mask. It's a safe haven for them to play in."

Three days later, more than a dozen pieces of shiny fail have become colorful figures in various moments of dance, strut, work, and pose.

Bill, who seems a perpetually smiling youngster, finishes his figure with colored tissue paper and glue. He's heard the others complain about the art class, but shrugs it off.

"They give us the basics of what we got to do," he says of the art teachers. "But we get to do the detail, and that's when you detail it with how you're feeling. That's the way I look at it.

"Some just do it to get it done. I say, at least it's something to do."

Robin Erb
31 October 2005



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