Working with 12 professional teaching artists, Artivate’s Project Youth ArtReach (PYA) provided 353 workshops at six sites, amounting to 530 workshop hours. We coordinated 20 performances in music, dance, slam-poetry and storytelling at three detention centers. Compared to the previous year, the number of workshops increased by 13 percent.
Performances included Andes Manta enchanting the audience with “sounds of the rain forest”; Step Afrika! wowing the audience with skill, energy and discipline — then inviting inmates to join them in dancing; Genticorum, the Quebec band, singing traditional folk songs in French – with audience call-and-response; and international slam poet champion, Gayle Danley, performing her personal poetry, emphasizing the importance, value and positive outcomes of writing down one’s feelings and owning one’s words.
Boys at Cheltenham made sculptures and pottery, including wheel work, in four weekly ceramics classes. Participants at other sites learned about color and composition, painted on canvas, paper and aluminum-composite boards, read and wrote poems and memoires, cut and laid glass mosaic tiles, and worked out rhythms on djembe drums. Overall, workshops were intentionally structured, skill-based, and aimed at focusing on participants’ strengths and assets. Participants were challenged to learn new skills, problem solve, take (artistic) risks, and expressive themselves in constructive, productive class settings.
“I discovered I could be more creative than I thought I could be. It definitely helped with my self-worth.”
Artists skilled at leading workshops for court-involved youth and adults include Kofi Dennis and Kwame Ansah-Brew (West African drum, dance and culture); visual artists Carien Quiroga, Arturo Ho and Alicia Cosnahan (drawing, painting, mixed media, mosaics, mural arts). Pamela Reid, Katie Aldworth and Normon Greene teach ceramics. Literature workshops are led by local professors of creative writing from George Washington University, UMBC and Washington College.
Workshop instructors commit to anywhere from 4 to 42 workshops per year, at one or more sites. All are subjected to background checks and meet annually with PYA Director Claire Schwadron regarding protocol at the institutions, appropriate curriculum, supplies, classroom management, etc. Artists are compensated and supported by PYA and Artivate. It is worth noting the average number of years an artist has been teaching with PYA is 10, all the while engaged in their own professional work – exhibiting, performing or publishing.
Most performances were held in the dorm areas (“pods”) at Montgomery County Correctional Facility and included nationally-touring artists Andes Manta, folk music of South America; Karim Nagi, Egyptian percussionist, Genticorum, a Quebec trio. Local artists include American folk musicians, Magpie; Christylez Bacon and Wytold (“Classical Hip-Hop”), and dance of Step Afrika! Most of the performers are on the Artivate roster; they coordinate well in advance with the PYA director, who meets them at the sites, arranges for tech needs, and acts as the escort. A few performances are held in juvenile centers in multipurpose rooms and tend to include all youth and staff together.
“I feel like I’m part of a community in drum class.”
As a core program of Artivate since 2000, Project Youth ArtReach specifically designs arts programming for youth and adults involved in the court system in Maryland. PYA programs are skills-based, with planned curricula and clear goals. Artists are selected for their talent and recognition in the arts community, and their ability to teach and engage this particular population.
According to jail administrators, incarcerated individuals have been identified as experiencing some or all of the following: substance abuse, violence within their communities (including gang activity and allegiance), learning disabilities, poor health and/or mental health issues, poor communication skills, and low-income households. The majority are African-American or Latino. Most PYA participants report little exposure to the arts.
The primary beneficiaries are the inmates and youth with whom we work. At Cheltenham, where we have four weekend workshops every week, we have established three skilled artists as mentors and teachers who consistently inspire youth to step out of their comfort zone and try their hand at an old art form, to surprise and impress themselves. Pottery is thrown, fired, glazed and fired again — and youth can take home their pieces or send them home with a parent. Staff have been known to remark more than once, “I’ve never seen that boy focus on anything for so long.” One youth said, “I didn’t think I was an artist. I’m an artist!” But the teachers’ favorite, most common remark is simple and enthusiastic, “I made that!”