February 23, 2007

Students Bring Art to Prisoners

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Yesterday marked the opening night of “Voice,” a collection of artwork created by young women of the Lansing Residential Center, a medium security juvenile detention center just outside of Ithaca.

The artwork was compiled by Art Beyond Cornell, a club that visits the residential center twice a week to teach art classes to the residents, in an effort to share the art and program with the Cornell community.

“We are putting together this exhibit because the girls have expressed to us in the past that they feel confined to their environment and like they cannot express their opinions,” Hannah Mattheus-Kairys ’07, co-president of ABC, said.

The ABC program was started after one of the residents requested to have an art mentor. Since then, the program has evolved into an initiative to bring art into the center and also provide outside mentoring for the young women, who have very little contact with the outside world.

“Our goal in being there was not to create artists, but to socially interact with the girls in a way that they weren’t exposed to otherwise, because the people they are exposed to are the staff members which are there authority, and to the other girls in the facility which are their peers who are very troubled,” Mattheus-Kairys said.

The pieces in the show consisted of works from the past two years, the amount of time the program has been in existence. A diverse number of pieces were showcased, including a large collaborative work in which the residents were instructed to draw the animal which they felt best represented themselves. In doing so, the animals all share the same environment. Among other works were portraits, still-life drawings and abstract water color paintings.

Kathleen McDermott ’09, treasurer of ABC, said, “I think they are a good representation of how diverse the girls themselves are. If you look closely, there’s a wide range of humor and emotions and talent expressed.”

Several of the ABC members noted that programs like this are especially important, given that art programs are often cut from public schools.

Each week, a different member of the club creates a lesson plan that may include a number of different techniques or focus on a particular famous artist.

The experience has provided a valuable way in which the club members can combine a community outreach program with art.

The exhibit was videotaped for the residents, since they are unable to attend it. Mattheus-Kairys said that the exhibit was not created with the intent to exploit the residents, but rather at the request of the young women to share their art with the Cornell community.

“I think the most important thing would really be to look at the work and understand the girls are intelligent and talented people, to think about the fact that they can be rehabilitated,” McDermott said.

Some attendees were impressed with both the community outreach and the art itself.
“I’m really impressed with a lot of the pieces. They are extremely emotional and the colors are vibrant and vivid, It’s nice to see that hopefully this is therapeutic for the girls,” Laura Janka ’09 said.