Sun Cover Story: Feb. 2007 By Stephen Baxter
Inside Art: Juvenile Hall program lets
teens express themselves.
Photograph by Jacqueline Ramseyer
Creating Art: Artist/instructor Anabella Pinon
shows a painting she made of a minor at
Juvenile Hall during a two-hour painting class.
Inside Art: Juvenile Hall program lets teens express
There are two ways to get to the art room in Unit B7 at Santa Clara County
Juvenile Hall. For art instructors such as Ruben Reyes, who teaches at
the Mother Earth Clay Art Center in Sunnyvale, it's fairly simple.
He signs a sheet in the lobby, shows an ID to a clerk behind a glass wall,
and winds through a maze of linoleum-floored halls with cream-colored
brick walls. Five doors unlock by remote along the way, and surveillance
cameras train their lenses on him. He walks up a flight of stairs to a
tidy classroom with narrow plastic tables.
If you're a minor in the B7 art class, you get there another way. Assault
someone, run with a gang or have a felony amount of marijuana linked to
you, and that might get you in. Youths held for more serious crimes such
as rape and murder stay in other units.
In B7, after dinner on Wednesdays, Reyes and a handful of other artists
such as Miguel Machuca and Anabella Piñon teach incarcerated minors
about art in a program by the nonprofit Catalyst for Youth.
Volunteers have run the program for nearly a year, and the teens who have
stuck with it have improved their craft and their outlook. For Reyes,
teaching art is as much a mission of the program as getting the youths
"They release and relax and all of a sudden, because of the way art
works, you can notice when their eyes change. They say, 'This is cool,'
" Reyes says.
Miguel Machuca, Anabella Piñon and Curtis Manzano taught the class
last week. They are 29, 26 and 24 years of age, respectively, and they
brought canvases, acrylic paints and brushes to the room. Four teens from
a group of about 30 unglued themselves from the TV in the next room to
They're dressed in county-issued clothes: tan T-shirts, green sweatshirts
and brown shorts or sweats. They all wear generic white Velcro shoes.
Small windows on the wall of the art room look out on a handball court
where shirtless teens with tattoos thump balls against a wall.
Angel, 17, has attended the art class for the last six weeks. Because
the average stay at Juvenile Hall is 23 days, most minors just get a taste
of it before they are released. "Before I started coming to the program,
I was just drawing; now I'm painting. ... It's cool, it's relaxing, it's
whatever," he says.
hall, he tattooed his cousin's name on his body using homemade tools.
"I wanted to learn to tattoo, but I had nothin'," he says.
In class, Angel smiles and chats while mixing paints to create a dollop
of soft green. Another student accidentally flicks some paint and water
in his eye and leaves the room to wash it out. "Is he gonna live?"
Angel asks jokingly. Instructors say his negative attitude has sweetened
from weeks ago.
On a black canvas, he paints a green, white and brown garlic bulb with
a fine brush, and writes "Gilroy" in wide yellow letters beneath
it. Toward the end of the session, he blots out the scene to create a
Machuca encourages him to start over on another layer.
"When I start a canvas, I never know what it's going to be, but I
figure it out," Machuca says. "It's never done; a canvas is
Non profit Catalyst for Youth began the art program for troubled teens
in April 2006, and instructors from Mother Earth Clay Art Center &
Foundation taught their first class in late 2006.
Abby O'Connell, executive director of the foundation, met Joanne Hobbs,
the executive director of Catalyst for Youth, at a grant-writing workshop
in 2005. They talked about the juvenile hall class, and O'Connell helped
teach the first clay session.
"Art isn't always considered cool--they come in with this kind of
glazed-over look. But then their faces light up and their eyes animate,"
Mother Earth, a t790 Lucerne Drive in Sunnyvale, is one of the largest
pottery studios in the Bay Area. In part because of budget constraints,
the center is letting another tenant expand into its space this summer,
leaving it with 7,000 of its original 10,000 square feet.
O'Connell says that still leaves plenty of room for classes, which are
growing. Last week, juvenile hall representatives discussed a field trip
for two minors to the Sunnyvale studio. They will likely use the potter's
wheel and other equipment that is difficult to carry.
At the first pottery session before Christmas, some minors made holiday
gifts for their family and friends. One student sculpted little clay hearts
with engraved initials. O'Connell says the program has gone well.
"They're good kids. I know that sounds kind of odd, but these are
kids that were away from their families around the holidays," she
says, and they've taken to the program.
Reyes said the youths are not unlike traditional students or athletes,
but it helps to know what they want.
"I coached soccer in Almaden for 15 years," Reyes says. "If
you can kick it and be consistent and be true to your words, they're looking
for consistency. I don't care if they're the richest kids in Los Gatos,"
Nearly everything in juvenile hall is structured, from the time they wake
up to lights out and even the way they walk down the halls with their
hands behind their backs, bound by imaginary handcuffs. They address elders
by "sir" and "ma'am," and are forbidden to swear.
Art class is different. There are two rules: They can't make gang-related
art, and they can't draw swastikas. Most everything else is fair game.
Many draw or paint crosses or make abstract art. One student painted geometric
shapes and a peacock from a pencil sketch a friend gave him.
They don't have to address their elders as "sir" or "ma'am,"
though some do anyway, out of habit.
They can swear, and they can paint "What the [expletive]" in
bright yellow and red, as one 18-year-old did last week. It was his 13th
time in juvie, he says, and he has fathered three children from two mothers.
"When you look at this, what do you think?" he asks, holding
up his canvas.
"What would happen if I showed this to a supervisor?" he asks.
"He'd probably give you an hour," another says, nodding.
"An hour" means an hour in your room.
The art class treads a fine line, as their regular authority figures dropped
by to find them swearing and cajoling. But the atmosphere is light, for
the most part, and art is the focus.
"I think this is one of the most positive programs, says Eric Lee,
a group counselor. "It's an excellent program." Lee says he
doesn't need to lure minors to it anymore because it's spread by word
of mouth. "Minors would talk it up and say, 'Try it out,'" he
Other county officials also say such programs have helped the youths look
beyond gangs, and help rival gang members work together.
Joanne Hobbs, founder and executive Director of Catalyst for Youth says
she had more plans for the budding artists. Some of the paintings produced
in the class will appear in an exhibit called Work & Play at the Center
for Training and Careers, opening on March 9. The center is at 1600 Las
Plumas Ave. in North San Jose. Future grants might allow the instructors
to quit their day jobs as drivers and administrative assistants to focus
on the program, and their own art.
"We're going to create some more good trouble," Hobbs says.
For more information about Catalyst for Youth, visit its website at www.catalystforyouth.org
© Copyright 20013 Catalyst for Youth, a 501 (c) 3 non-profit
organization. All rights reserved.