Tears spilling from her haunting eyes, the black-and-white sketch of a young woman with a red “X” over her mouth stares out at visitors this month to an upstate New York art gallery. A painting of a brown fist with pink nails drips with blood, stabbed by the thorn of a rose it clutches. A papier-mache Motorola walkie–talkie draws on the imagery of the supervision, surveillance and life under the watch of guards at a nearby juvenile detention center.
“I’d like to honor and celebrate the artists who can’t be here in person tonight and see their exhibition of their artwork,” Maggie Hazen, a visual artist in residence at Bard College who organized the exhibition, recently told an audience over video conference. “They are really only 13 minutes away from this art space.”
The artists whose work is on display through this weekend at the Foreland art center in Catskill are currently incarcerated at the Brookwood Secure Center for Youth, a high-security state facility housing those found to have committed certain violent felonies as young teens.
The exhibition “Talking Back: Artists of the Columbia Collective” is on public display at the 111 Water St. gallery through Sunday. The featured artists have seen only a virtual walk-through of their pieces, installed against the gallery’s red-brick interior.
Due to confidentiality rules, visitors will not come to know their real names, but they are identified under the pseudonyms Juste-A, Jay and Marshmallow. The only possible glimpse of the artists is on a screen overlooking the gallery. They wear burgundy uniforms, and a filter obscures their faces.
Proceeds from any sales will go to a scholarship fund for the detained youth to use for their education upon release.
“The ethos of the nonprofit — of everything I want to do — is say, ‘No, you are seen, and you are heard even though we can’t share your name or your face, and we can’t make this aspect of you public,” Hazen explained in an interview.
Hazen has worked with these young artists in two state detention facilities since 2019 and has come to learn of the dire need for more enrichment programs. Through her nonprofit Juvenile Justice Arts and Media Network, she offers traditional art mediums such as painting, sculpture and drawing, as well as new media opportunities including digital design, short films and video games. Participation depends on the availability of staff employed by the Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS), which runs the Brookwood facility and others like it. But adequate staffing has been a challenge during the pandemic in New York facilities statewide, leaving fewer employees to do the job. According to a July report by the New York State Comptroller that compared 2021 with the prior year, overtime pay for OCFS staff grew by 45% and overtime hours increased by 25%.
This is the first-ever art exhibition for the three female and trans artists, ages 16, 18 and 19. The show aims to combat what Hazen and her curator Sofia Thieu-D’Amico describe as the “oppressive silencing” of incarcerated artists and their peers in detention.
Girls locked up at Brookwood can be held in the juvenile facility until age 21. And while there are few specifics on the artists’ backgrounds, according to federal research, the pathways to delinquency are typically different for young girls than for boys.
A U.S. Department of Justice bulletin summarized their circumstances in 2020: “At-risk girls are much more likely than boys to have histories of sexual abuse and other traumatic experiences, report thoughts of suicide, experience persistent sadness or mental illness, use drugs and alcohol, and run away from home.”
According to OCFS data, last year females comprised 14% of all youth held in state custody, and just 3% of the 16- and 17-year-olds held on felony charges.
Black and brown girls are far more likely to enter the justice system than their white peers, and the “Talking Back” exhibition drew inspiration from the groundbreaking Black feminist, artist and author bell hooks and her 2014 book bearing that name. The creation of the art and its showing is a chance to express some of what the artists may well have otherwise kept pent up inside.
In one piece currently on display at the Catskill gallery, “THERE IS STILL LIGHT BEHIND THESE GATES” is woven in red letters on top of a photo of a razor-wire-topped fence. In another, a portrait of a young Black woman’s face is not discernible, but the backdrop of her image is luminescent: a bright and warming pink glows all around her. In another piece nearby, a youth bound in chains has flowers bursting from their face and extending from their hands to the sky.
Hazen’s own work combines moving images, sculpture and performance. Her art has been shown nationally and internationally, from Switzerland to Shanghai. She began working with the artists in detention when they were placed at the Columbia Girls Secure Center in Claverack, New York, and named their cohort the Columbia Collective. Since the girls moved to Brookwood, she continued to work with them there.
“I said, ‘Let’s make a collective, and we’re all just making artwork together, and you get to develop your own voices, your own artistic styles and your practices, and I’m just here to help cultivate that space for you,’” Hazen said in an interview. “So, it’s more of creating free space within a system, basically, that takes away your freedom.”
Importance of the arts
According to the Arts Education Partnership, a national coalition of more than 100 education, arts, cultural, government, business and philanthropic organizations, participation in artistic activities can reduce the likelihood that young people “will engage in delinquent, risky or violent behavior.”
Federal juvenile justice officials point to additional benefits: the healing potential of arts programming for those youth who end up in detention.
“It is sometimes difficult for at-risk, traumatized, and justice-involved youths to verbalize their feelings and experiences — a challenge that positions the arts as a beneficial approach in rehabilitative programming and therapies for these populations,” a 2016 literature review by the the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention concludes. “Given that art is an interactive process, youths have the opportunity to form trusting relationships with prosocial adults (i.e., therapists, master artists, or teachers) who can encourage them to participate in solitary or group activities while reflecting on their problems.”
In its review, experts state that producing a final piece of artwork provides a focal point for healing and rehabilitation. It can also help youth cope with trauma and victimization as well as foster resiliency, autonomy, a sense of purpose and social competence.
In the Sept. 14 panel discussion highlighting the work of the young people detained at Brookwood, Lukee Forbes, a civil rights coordinator for the Hudson/Catskill Housing Coalition, spoke to the power of art for incarcerated teens.
Forbes described running from his home and the pain of watching his mother struggle with AIDS and cancer. He said he and a group of “co-defendants” were arrested for assault and robbery and he ended up at Brookwood and the state’s Goshen Secure Center, starting when he was 15. He got into painting at the juvenile detention facilities, he said, noting that his art classes represented “the light.”
“I found out I was kind of good,” he said, “and I just kept going with it.”
While describing his subsequent seven years in lockups, Forbes demonstrated to those assembled how he crafted flowers out of tissue paper — a skill he learned in “the box,” a euphemism for solitary confinement. He was sent there for four months for saving fruit cups, he said, on suspicion of planning to make the contraband brew known as “hooch.”
Through his artwork, he developed a fascination with duality: night and day, trees and how “they grow up and they grow down,” glaciers that are visible only on the top layer, and people — “none of us are all good or all bad.”