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. (THE
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,
"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
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
"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
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
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.
"Everyone deserves the opportunity to know what's out
there and what's available," he says. "It's especially true with these
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
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
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
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
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."
31 October 2005