Seeing inside: Incarcerated youth express themselves

By Lisa Mikulski

See Inside – Incarcerated Youth Share Their Stories is on view at The Parachute Factory Gallery through June 30. Photo by Steven Olsen

Often, when driving on assignment to an exhibition that I’m going to review or profile, I find myself wondering about the elements of content and installation. How will the work be presented? Will the installation be masterful? Will the artwork stand well together and independently? In the case of See Inside – Incarcerated Youth Share Their Stories, I wondered if it was going to be dark. What will be in the hearts and minds of these kids who are serving time in the juvenile justice system and how will they express those feelings?

See Inside, on view at The Parachute Factory Gallery in New Haven’s Erector Square, is an expansion exhibition from a previous pilot program titled What You See On The Inside. This year’s larger exhibition is a highly collaborative showing that gives voice to teens incarcerated in Connecticut’s juvenile justice system. The Arts Council of Greater New Haven and Connecticut Mental Health Center Foundation are presenting the exhibition in collaboration with the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance (CJJA) and Community Partners in Action (CPA) Prison Arts Program. The show runs through June 30, 2011, and showcases visual art and poetry created by young people between the ages of 16 and 21 from around the state. When I walked through the doors of The Parachute Factory Gallery, I found the walls awash in color.

See Inside – Incarcerated Youth Share Their Stories is on view at The Parachute Factory Gallery through June 30. Photo by Arts Council staff

The title, See Inside, lends meaning to several different aspects of vision. The exhibition encourages viewers to see inside the hearts of the artists, see inside the juvenile justice system, and, most important, see inside themselves. What preconceived notions might visitors have and how can this artwork open our eyes?

Abby Anderson, executive director of CJJA, hopes the show helps to “expand people’s view of the kids in the juvenile justice system. The project shows the creation of beautiful pieces of art which focus on hope, dreams, and potential.”

The mission of the CJJA is to advocate for and help reform Connecticut’s vulnerable youth. Not every kid in the justice system is a bad kid. Some, due to certain circumstances such as neglect, poverty, or poor decision-making, find themselves incarcerated in a system that is not always fair. This show gives the public a chance to hear those stories.

The Community Partners in Action Prison Arts Program promotes self-examination and self-esteem in Connecticut inmates through participation in visual arts classes, exhibitions, and publications while sharing their contributions with the community. Jeffrey Greene, program manager of CPA’s Prison Arts Program, says the show “brings together the individual experiences, talents, emotions and ideas from throughout the community to make a constructive difference in the lives of young people … it’s really exciting. It (also) gives the prison staff and the people in the community the chance to see the inmate as more than a number and a crime.”

See Inside – Incarcerated Youth Share Their Stories is on view at The Parachute Factory Gallery through June 30. Photo by Steven Olsen

The artwork that hangs on the gallery walls depicts pain, but it also depicts mountains, puppies, hope, freedom, and love. Canvases are covered in yellows, greens, blues, oranges, and reds, and suggestions of labyrinths, heartbreak, and puzzles caught my attention. These kids were just like any other kids. They could be, perhaps, friends of my own children, but these are children who have experienced more angst, have been subjected to more judgment, and therefore express hopefulness and a lingering sadness.

“Putting a piece of artwork in a show, for these kids, can be transformational,” says Debbie Hesse, the Arts Council’s director of artistic services and programs.

The main wall of the exhibition space features a 35-piece installation titled Tell Me What You See. It is the centerpiece of CPA’s health education initiative and has been used as a traveling exhibition in high schools around the state since 2009. Through color on canvas, the installation brings attention to such issues as sexually transmitted diseases, hepatitis, and HIV/AIDS. It focuses on fears, concerns, and knowledge and communicates a message encouraging teens to make better decisions with regard to sex and health. These paintings reflect experiences both good and bad, as well as consequences.

In addition to the visual arts portion of the program, See Inside also showcases the written word. Hung like works of art in their own right, I found some of these to be most heartfelt, such as this piece of poetry from a youngster named Michael:

Like a monkey I climb, but
I fall like a baby bird.
Comforting as thunder but
Lonely as the howling wind.
I stand tall and am afraid of being squished.
I am 15, but want to be 1
When everyone cares for me.
I am reflective like hematite, but
Fear being dull like limestone.

I encourage you to visit The Parachute Factory Gallery to see these works by Connecticut teens. Perhaps they have made bad decisions or experienced hardships that you or I might never know. But their artwork speaks volumes about pain, hope, and the potential of tomorrow.

The Parachute Factory Gallery is located in Erector Square, 319 Peck St., Building 1, New Haven. See Inside is on view through June 30, 2011. Gallery hours are: Wednesday, 10 a.m.-2 p.m.; Thursday and Friday, 12-5 p.m.; and by appointment. For more information, contact the Arts Council at (203) 772-2788.

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