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The Voice of the Black Community

Life and Religion

Jail arts program unlocks creativity, new horizons among inmates
Partnership between Bechtler, sheriff’s office opens
Published Wednesday, April 25, 2018 8:45 pm
by Ashley Mahoney

Mecklenburg County Jail inmates display art they created in a program co-sponsored by Bechtler Museum of Modern Art and the sheriff’s department.

Programmatic accountability exists inside Charlotte jails.

Teaching artists Annabel Manning and Anna Kenar conduct classes at Charlotte-Mecklenburg detention facilities, Jail Central and Jail North, for both adult and youth offenders through the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art’s Jail Arts Initiative in collaboration with the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office. It began in 2011.

“We didn’t know how it was going to be received,” said Keith Cradle, Ph.D., adolescent program manager for the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office, who became involved with the program prior to joining the Bechtler’s board of directors. “We didn’t know how the kids would take it, but they loved it.”

Courses start with an introductory session relating daily life to the works before the students.

“That first class is really an educational portion where the Bechtler talks about art, some brief history, and then it brings it up into some modern times,” Cradle said.

From rappers to works featured in the Bechtler collection, the initial class connects art with daily life.

“Giving them some insight on famous artists that they might have seen before, but don’t know exactly where that work came from, and pop culture references that they can latch onto,” Cradle said. “When Jay-Z says certain things about artists, they might have heard that in the song, but don’t know that this is what the guy looks like, or these are the pieces that he’s referencing.”

Said Manning: “We find an artist that is part of the collection at the Bechtler, and then we use that and depart on some sort of program based on that artist. With [Spanish artist Joan] Miró, he has done a whole series—‘Ladder of Escape’ and ‘Hope of a Condemned Man’—they both, in my eyes, reflect something that is already happening with the inmates that I’m working with. I use these themes to sort of address their own lives.”

Relating to the art keeps the students engaged.

“They start to perk up, and start to say, ‘I get that,’” Cradle said. “It’s always the money. You show them a piece that sells for like $200 million, and they’re thinking, ‘man, my kid brother could do that,’ and then they’re excited thinking that they could do the same thing. Now you’ve got their interest piqued.”

The class is the only opportunity Charlotte-Mecklenburg inmates have to take an arts program. Through residencies, which Mykell Gates Jamil, associate director of education at the Bechtler, equates to 10 courses per year with 10 hours spent per cycle with students. For example, they would meet for approximately two hours each morning.

“It helps a lot with their life skills—starting and completing a project is something that we find to be really beneficial for them,” said Jamil. “When they first start, they may not feel very confident. They may not think that they are going to be able to execute this project, because they don’t have a lot of experience in art. By the end of it, when they realize that they were capable of doing so much more than they thought, and they’ve completed it, and they’re proud of it, we get a lot of feedback from them saying that it was a sense of pride and accomplishment.”

Said Cradle: “Not only does it give them the feeling of being able to do art, but there is a feeling of accomplishment, self-esteem, all kinds of outcomes and variables.”

Each class culminates in a survey, which often leads to feedback indicating that the classes are stress relieving for both youth and adult offenders.
“Some of them even say that this is the first time they have been exposed to this type of stress relief,” Jamil said. “One student shared, ‘I was getting stressed and depressed before this class.’”

Manning emphasizes that the program allows inmates to use art to reflect on his or her situation, not just as a means of stress relief.

“I see it as an area to also reflect about one’s life, future and current condition,” Manning said. “I focus very specifically on themes that address that.”

The inmates’ work goes on view in the Bechtler’s lobby, which features rotating works from each of their community programs.


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