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Create it Forward: Realizing the Potential in Our Incarcerated Youth   06.29.17

You don't realize how many art supplies and tools contain some kind of metal until you have to make artwork without it. This is just one of the many challenges arts organizations and art instructors faced when engaging in a fledgling program created to enrich the lives of young men spending time at the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Detention Center. Create it Forward: Realizing the Potential in Our Incarcerated Youth is a collaborative program spearheaded by SPACES and CMSD teacher Melissa Marini Svigelj-Smith to provide desperately needed creative outlets for the youth caught up in the juvenile detention system. Through a generous grant from the NoVo Foundation SPACES worked with 10 artists and 4 arts organizations during the 2016-2017 school year to provide 15 on-site art workshops that would engage 13 students each class by showing them that creativity can be part of their livelihood.

Teacher Melissa Marini Svigelj-Smith instructs her class through SEL, or Social and Emotional Learning, as a way to provide her students with the tools to graduate and start their life anew. Her lesson plans are filled with daily reflections, exercises to reduce stress, uplifting and inspirational stories, and now, art making. It can sometimes be difficult to measure what impact SEL instruction can have with such a transient student body. In 2014 it was reported that there were 2,450 juveniles who spent time at CCJDC that year, though there is only a daily average of 136 juveniles. Which means some students are only in the system for a day, some a week, some longer. Regardless of their sentence length, Ms. Svigelj-Smith believes each student's time in the classroom and exposure to SEL is invaluable for their growth and hopefully will result in reduced recidivism rates.

Beginning in August of 2016 SPACES brought together Zygote Press, Inc., Art House, Inc., Twelve Literary and Performative Arts Incubator, cartoonist and journalist Josh Usmani, musician Luke Rinderknecht, Creative Fusion artist Michela Picchi, and culinary artist Bea Svigelj with the mission to assist Ms. Svigelj-Smith in her efforts to introduce art making into her SEL classroom. A major part of the SEL education model is imparting generosity and empathy. In this effort the students' work was donated, when possible, to local charities that focus on human services, such as Ronald McDonald House. Students decorated cupcakes; made cookies, paper, masks, beads, pencil holders, and silkscreen prints; learned about mural making; created character designs and cartoons; learned body percussion; made Christmas Cards for ill children at the Cleveland Clinic; and participated in creative writing. There was also a special screening of the documentary "Cooler Bandits" with a visit from Donovan Harris, one of the subjects of the film.

When the students of Ms. Svigelj-Smith's class reviewed their art making experiences, it was clear that a lasting impression had been made. Some students had favorites, while others just enjoyed the exposure to new things, as can be seen below from the students' mid-year classroom reflections:

"I never knew how paper was made, and I always wanted to."

"I liked the silk screen painting the best, because it showed me something new."

"I liked making Christmas Cards the best, because kids don't always get gifts for Christmas and they're sick so I know they were happy to get the cards we did."

"My favorite was cartooning and sculpting, because it gave me the idea to start writing my first book."

"I liked the cartooning because I like drawing and making cartoons."

"They were cool and fun. For most I took my time and others I went fast because it was easy to do. And I got help if I was stuck."

"What I like about the activities that I participated in was learning new things and learning how to create new things."

In April 2017, after nine art making workshops, Ms. Svigelj-Smith's students participated in CommunitySPACES. Their artwork was on display with the artwork of constituents from 7 other organizations and was shared with over 200 hundred visitors during the exhibition. It was a moment of pride and validation for the students' creative work.

Create it Forward: Realizing the Potential in Our Incarcerated Youth is just one facet of SPACES' Community Engagement Campaign, which aims to increase the community's exposure to experimental artists and artwork through collaboration. There are a lot of talented young men and women in the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Detention Center, and SPACES is happy to share their creative potential with you.

Create it Forward: Realizing the Potential of our Incarcerated Youth

If you were inspired by Create it Forward: Realizing the Potential in Our Incarcerated Youth and would like to donate art supplies, share your artistic talent, or make a monetary donation to keep programs like this and others going, please email Executive Director Christina Vassallo at cvassallo@SPACESgallery.org

Teacher Melissa Marini Svigelj-Smith taking placemats created from student prints to Ronald McDonald House.
Teacher Melissa Marini Svigelj-Smith taking placemats created from student prints to Ronald McDonald House.

Keywords: art making, at risk youth, incarcerated youth, prison art, youth art programs
Author: Michelle Epps, Community Engagement Manager
Category: General

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