Faculty members Arvie Smith and Barry Sanders and a band of PNCA students bring the transformative power of creative practice to incarcerated teenagers.
Over the last year, the empowerment of creative work was taken beyond the PNCA campus in two separate projects aimed at inspiring incarcerated youth. On the street, the location of the work by PNCA students and faculty members is called “juvie.” Officially, it’s the Donald E. Long home, Multnomah County’s Juvenile Detention Center, where teens arrested in Multnomah, Clackamas and Washington counties arrive in handcuffs.
Almost every teen in the center stands accused of a Measure 11 felony. Voted into Oregon law in 1994, Measure 11 set mandatory minimum sentences for 24 crimes ranging from assault, robbery and weapons charges, through sexual abuse, rape, manslaughter and, at worst, murder.
While in Detention teens attend school over five hours a day and participate in other art, writing and sports projects. Recently PNCA faculty members Arvie Smith and Barry Sanders worked on separate projects at the Center that bring engagement and, they hope, understanding of the transformative power of creative practice. Faculty member Victor Maldonado recently spent a day observing Smith, Sanders and the PNCA students who are reaching out to these teens behind bars.
For the last year and a half, PNCA Painting Department faculty Arvie Smith has been busy executing a public art mural project in the Donald E. Long Detention Center. The unusual project came about through a commission from Regional Arts & Cultural Council with funding from Percent for Art through the construction of the Multnomah County Department of Community Justice Detention Facility in 1995. Smith has worked in residence, engaging with the teenage inmates while working in his masterful social surrealist style. In the panels, Smith’s figurative abstraction creates enlightened compositions that are direct and poetic in their themes.
“Hope is at the heart of the compositions,” says Smith. For the incarcerated teens, hope represents the culmination not just of Smith’s skillful hands but also his ability to model the kind of creative practice that could mean a permanent way out of institutions like Donald E. Long.
Reflecting on the goals of the mural project in the context of the prison, Smith understands that the odds are against his mural making a difference in the lives of children brought up in the margins of society. “Beating the odds on the streets doesn’t get any easier once you begin dancing with the prison industry,” says Smith. What Smith knows and teaches his students is to “understand that passion can only provide us the strength to be patient with our goals and aspirations.” Watching Smith design, draw and fill-in his paintings has also taught his students a work ethic that underscores paying attention to the big picture and following through to the last detail. For Smith’s students, art is now the culmination not just of skillfulness but also the ability to care deeply for something – especially over time.
In another secured location in the detention center, PNCA Writer-in-Residence Barry Sanders gathers a group of BFA and MFA students from his PNCA seminar class on Pain, Prisons and Punishment. Having just gone through an orientation for the explicit and implicit rules of the detention facility, Sanders and his students snake their way through the gauntlet of double doors and security points that ensure the aesthetic alienation necessary for penal detention where dichotomies and hierarchies are the expected and maintained standards. Prison is no art school. Sanders’ students are completely aware of the systemic approach their students are conditioned to follow so they have been busy crafting a lesson plan filled with interpersonal exchanges, moments of private reflection and flights of stream-of-conscious poetry courtesy of Gertrude Stein.
As the young, mostly Latino and Black, teenage boys enter the classroom the tension and anticipation is palpable. They look stir crazy, overslept and under engaged. An icebreaker that the PNCA students prepared successfully begins a routine that will play out, with slight variation, according to the PNCA student who will lead it, for the rest of the semester.
Led by Mike O’Malley ’11, each student receives a PNCA sketchbook and is asked to write down a list of things each student hopes for and things they don’t want to happen.
Each student was interested in the assignment for personal reasons and seemed compelled to participate by sharing their lists. As the ice-breaker, one that O’Malley learned from Write Around Portland, made its way round-robin style each student expressed a deep sense of longing, sadness and regret. “I don’t want to die and go to hell,” one student stated. But there was also revealed a great resilience, “I want to build a house for my family with my own hands,” spoke out the next student. The students’ hopes and fears were simple, elegant and resounding.
Now that the students had warmed to their new classroom, MFA in Visual Studies candidate Carl Klimt presented texts that he read aloud to the class. Klimt encouraged his students to read along or to close their eyes, to imagine what he was reading and, most importantly, to enjoy it.
Klimt introduces Gertrude Stein as someone who made a career of breaking the laws of proper language. As Klimt reads from Stein’s poem “Beef Stew,” a particular line catches the classroom’s attention, “every time there is an exception there is an exception,” bringing hope in the form of humor in the imaginations of the students, raising the classroom into a release of knowing laughter. Arvie Smith and his illuminating paintings, along with Barry Sanders and his student’s engaging teaching style, are undoubtedly examples of how prisons can become places where students can imagine a future beyond the hold of social marginalization.