Visual Arts » 2D

Brushstroke Redemption

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Marion County jail guards caught juvies with contraband, but it wasn’t drugs or shivs or jailhouse hooch made from fruit so rotten it fermented in a Ziploc bag squirreled away in some hidey-hole.

Instead, the kids were making art -- with the sort of MacGyver resourcefulness that comes to some determined people confined in a small cell for most of their time. They created portraits and other artwork on bedsheets, using Kool-Aid as paint.

The Inside Art program offers interested and obedient juvenile inmates an opportunity for self-expression. - COURTESY OF THE INDIANAPOLIS ART CENTER
  • Courtesy of the Indianapolis Art Center
  • The Inside Art program offers interested and obedient juvenile inmates an opportunity for self-expression.

A lot of authority types would crack down on such rogue artistic expression in a rigidly institutional setting where regulations rule supreme. You’ve seen movies like Shawshank Redemption and Footloose and Dead Poets Society and the like. But that’s not what happened in real life, at least not this one time.

Marion County Sheriff John Layton saw it less as a problem than an opportunity to get through to these youths who had messed up -- pretty badly in many cases. He invited the Indianapolis Art Center to come in and teach art classes, so the inmates could express themselves in a more formal setting and maybe glean some hope for a better life.

“Through the power of art and self-expression, we are able to give these young inmates a new way to look at the world,” Layton says. “Through art they can see beauty and feel freedom. It is our great hope that they will be able to take the lessons they learn in these art classes and choose to leave their own positive impressions on the world around them.”

And so the Insider Art program was born. The Indianapolis Art Center came in to the jail to give juvenile inmates who are interested and well-behaved a structured program that affords them the opportunity to create art and receive art instruction. Being able to attend the class also gives them an added incentive not to break the jail rules.

Indianapolis Art Center instructor Jeff Jeffries, a professional photographer, worked as a prison guard and now teaches art to young inmates. - COURTESY OF THE INDIANAPOLIS ART CENTER
  • Courtesy of the Indianapolis Art Center
  • Indianapolis Art Center instructor Jeff Jeffries, a professional photographer, worked as a prison guard and now teaches art to young inmates.

“They were creating art in their cells,” said Michelle Winkelman, Indianapolis Art Center director of outreach. “While obviously there was creativity and talent in the population, they were using materials and items they weren’t allowed to have in their cells. And we’re trying to give them a creative outlet and let them express themselves in a more positive way.”

The idea was so well-received that IAC managed to quickly raise $8,000 in a crowd-funding campaign. IAC already had experience with outreach classes all over the city where artists come in, sit down and help people develop an understanding of art and how to be creative in their own individual voice. They stress highly creative self-expression but also build the vocabulary to talk about art, identify things in art and make sense of how they relate to culture and the broader world.

“These kids are going through a lot of stress that the average person can’t understand,” Winkelman says. “They’re often in a bad environment, and though they make bad choices, we often can’t understand a lot of the difficulty some of these students have been through. We can’t presume anything about their guilt or innocence. Self-expression gives them more skills to better navigate whatever’s ahead. It helps them have some self-confidence and a desire to reform. It gives them some positive ideas when they’re in a vulnerable place with an uncertain future. And their future is very uncertain.”

The Indianapolis Art Center hopes to reach 50 kids with its outreach class at the Marion County Jail. - COURTESY OF INDIANAPOLIS ART CENTER
  • Courtesy of Indianapolis Art Center
  • The Indianapolis Art Center hopes to reach 50 kids with its outreach class at the Marion County Jail.

Outreach classes in the jail focus on painting and drawing and other visual arts. Instructors can’t bring in scissors and other restricted items that could be used as weapons or for other nefarious purposes.

Many of the students don’t have any formal artistic training, but some have clearly practiced drawing. The IAC hopes to build their confidence in their work and give them a sense they can contribute to the world, artistically and more broadly.

The IAC found just the right instructor, Jeff Jeffries, a professional photographer and longtime resident of Indianapolis who had previously worked as a prison guard. Jeffries understands the kids’ situation, can speak the vocabulary of their environment and know what their day-to-day life is like, Winkelman says. He’s instantly relatable and a good role model, since he earns a living as an artist, showing the young inmates they potentially could do the same.

But above all, Jeffries brings enthusiasm and passion to the role.

“I saw him post on social media that he was so excited to go back to prison,” Winkelman says.

About 16 students signed up for the class when it first started last summer, and the IAC will bring it back April 6. The hope is to serve at least 50 students between April and December.

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