I had signed up along with 6 other interns to help out with an art day event that the Restorative Justice folks had been planning at the jail (not state prison...more of a holding center for people awaiting trial). Usually, the art classes that Restorative Justice (a branch within the Mural Arts Program) holds, are either at the state prison, the juvenile detention center, or the work-release facility. The Detention Center though, needed some art too. The classes are usually a series of 10-weeks and are actual instruction in general art. The event I was helping out at, was planned to be more of a free-for-all style, art making, creative day for the inmates. There would be no formal instruction, just tables set out with projects and materials to work on, and us there for encouragement. We all were asked to come up with ideas for projects the men could do, and my first thought was of a project I love doing with my students as a supplement to whatever wall mural we're working on - a cut-paper mural!
These were some cut paper murals that I've done with kids in the past. All you need is a big sheet of butcher paper (I like blue - doubles as a sky and/or water), some construction paper, glue and scissors. I use this sometimes to occupy whatever kids aren't painting on the actual mural at the time. Kids love it, it teaches collaboration and team-working skills, and teachers love to display them. So at my table, I was going to have the inmates make one of these, of Philly.
My friend, Dorothy is in town right now, so she tagged along with me yesterday, too. A good way to spend an afternoon, right? We arrived at the detention center in conservative dress, were patted down and put all our art supplies through the x-ray machine, and were led to what they called their library (with not one book on the many empty bookshelves). There were 50 inmates waiting for us, who had signed up for the event. We explained the projects: there would be a table each for my mural, sketching, card-making, and origami. The men got up and moved around to the table of their choosing. The ones sitting at Dorothy and my table, were chatty and engaged. They seemed really glad to be talking to us, suggesting places to see in Philly, telling us some crazy stories, and asking us about ours. At first they were really hesitant to start, afraid to "do it wrong" (same situation as my students oftentimes). We had printed out pictures of the Philly skyline, so they were glad to have that as inspiration for the buildings they made out of the brightly colored paper. After watching Dorothy and I start to work, they started getting into it themselves. They combined colors interestingly, cut out intricate little window shapes, created depth by overlapping buildings, and made little billboards and signs of Philly places. I was impressed by their enthusiasm and abilities. One guy was telling us about how he's on "Psych meds" but doesn't actually take them (shh, don't tell), and how amazed he was that he was "feeling calm" and not "seeing red" at the moment. Haha...uhhh....good? I wish I could show you how their final piece turned out. They didn't allow phones or cameras inside, or I would have taken pictures. All glued onto the butcher paper was a big central river with a bridge over it, trees on either side, and buildings of all colors and shapes in the background, and clouds in the sky. It really turned out awesome. Everyone who worked on it signed it and shook our hands at the end, thanking us for coming out. We were allowed to leave their mural taped up to the wall in that overwhelmingly boring room. It felt good to leave that in there...a little bright spot.
I was nervous in the beginning, to do this. I thought it would be scarier than it ended up actually being, though. I think the inmates were really glad to have us there - a change in their mundane schedules at the very least, and a chance for the artistically inclined to have access to some materials to make something great, at the very best. Overall, a good experience and I'm glad I did it!
Next blog I really WILL type up the ghost story, I promise!