NEW YORK — A self-portrait by artist Brittany Knapp appears to call out in agony, begging onlookers to help. The life-sized image of a nearly-naked young woman is tethered at the wrist, a wooden three-dimensional cutout, hauntingly realistic against a darker plywood background.
“They strapped me down with the leather restraints like you see in the movies,” said Knapp, now 27. She was 16, incarcerated and suffering from mental illness when she was given an antipsychotic drug that caused hallucinations.
“Nothing was real. A male staffer who’d been really kind to me and was mentoring me was taking my clothes off,” she said.
The exhibition was organized by Isaac Scott of The Confined Arts, gallery curator Arden Sherman and curatorial fellow Alana Hernandez.
“For this exhibit, I really wanted it to be people taking up art as a therapy or from a personal experience,” Sherman said. The gallery focuses on socially-minded projects.
Exhibitor Sara Bennett is a former defense attorney whose first photos were of a woman she'd been working with pro bono who was serving a sentence of 74 years to life. Bennett published the photos in a book titled, "Spirit on the Inside."
When she showed her friends the book, she said, they were always surprised.
“People I know, they’d look at it and say ‘Oh, she was in prison?’” Bennett said. “Because I think people have this idea of people who are incarcerated as ‘other’ rather than somebody who looks like us — our mothers, our sisters, our daughters.”
Bennett wants those who view her photography to come away with one message: “People in prison look like us,” she said.
One photo in Bennett’s exhibit shows a woman sitting in a cramped bedroom, while another shows a woman sitting in the back of an SUV along with all her possessions. Both depict the struggle to find affordable housing, one of the biggest challenges older women face after long periods of incarceration. All of Bennett’s photos show recently released women going through the reentry process.
“I sort of came to it through an advocacy role, then I picked up the camera as a tool,” she said. Only recently has Bennett considered herself an artist.
Exhibit organizer Isaac Scott, who runs art programs for juvenile offenders, said it’s those who don’t consider themselves artists often do the best work.
“When I’m teaching and a kid says, ‘but I’m not an artist,’ I don’t even say anything anymore, I can’t wait to see what they can do,” Scott said.
Knapp was just 14 when her parents caught her smoking pot and sneaking out of the house. She says her parents didn’t know what to do with her, so they called a social worker. Small things led to more serious offenses and she spent the next four years in and out of the juvenile justice system.
Released when she turned 18, she hasn’t returned. She said she earned an undergraduate degree in art and went on to earn a Master’s in Art Therapy from New York University.
Knapp knows she’s lucky to have gotten out of the system.
Now an activist, artist and art therapist, her clients include children coming out of the juvenile justice and foster care systems.
She hopes her self-portrait, titled “She Was Low,” and other pieces at the exhibit will spark conversations about juvenile confinement. She feels compelled to work with young people and to share experiences through her art, she said.
“It really wasn’t an option. It helps give me a heart for the people I serve,” she said.
For the better part of the last two decades, The Beat Within has been committed to a mission of providing incarcerated youth with a forum where they can write (and draw) about the things that matter most to them, explore how they have lost connection with those things they value, and consider how they might re-connect to positive situations in their lives through the power of the written word.
This is a program that started small, in the Bay Area, with a commitment to provide detained kids between the ages of 11 to 18 with a safe space to share their ideas and experiences while promoting literacy, self-expression, some critical thinking skills, and healthy, supportive relationships with adults and their community.
That modest local effort has grown into a nationwide program that touches the lives of more than 5,000 youth in detention. Today, you can find weekly Beat workshops going on in 12 California county juvenile halls, from Alameda to San Diego. We are partnering with universities from U.C. Berkeley to the University of Hawaii. Meanwhile, the workshop model for The Beat is being replicated in Arizona, Texas, Alabama, New Mexico, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington, D.C., and, thanks to the JJIE, Georgia.
This is a broad program, one that is committed to providing aftercare for our youth and engagement and partnering with local community-based organizations that can provide job training, mentoring, peer-support, psycho-social support services, individual and group mental health counseling.
But it is the workshops that are the heart of what The Beat Within is all about. To encourage the kids to write and to draw, we begin with a conversation about issues affecting them and how they can make connections between their personal life and the larger community.
Our volunteers package up all of these writings and artwork and submit them for publication in The Beat’s bi-weekly magazine. Every kid who writes receives feedback on their work. When the issue comes out, well, even the young people who might have been suspicious and even hostile applaud when they listen to each other’s writings during the workshops, as well as when they are reading the many entries featured in each issue.
We encourage, through the power of the pencil and paper, for the writing and the art to come from the heart; and that they do!
During these difficult times, we want our contributors to use the art and writing as the light of hope and inspiration. Both channels are therapeutic, meditative, and provide a discipline.
Through art and writing, contributors find this forum as a safe place to reflect on their lives, their current state, as well as dream of a better future. Their work reveals the pride, the pain and insecurities, the fears, and the knowledge, that informs and gives us admirers of The Beat insight of what young people are truly dealing with at this moment in time.
The power of this work reaches many. The admiration from fellow Beat readers and contributors from Georgia, to Washington, D.C., to San Francisco and everywhere in between, gives immense satisfaction and empowerment to these young people, who often have very little self-worth. And thanks to The Beat’s publication, we have created a powerful community and support for these young people.
Often, we view The Beat Within publication as a history book of the week and a true resource guide. In this way, we learn from the direct source what is broken and needs to be addressed in the lives of our young contributors. That's empowering and powerful!
Through this process, The Beat seeks to reduce recidivism by providing youth with positive social means of expression as an alternative to violence and crime that lead them to their current situation. The Beat program does not pretend to solve the problems of youth violence in an economic recession where there are few jobs for young people, and virtually none for those who have left high school. But it can be a springboard for imagining new opportunities.
Programs to develop writing skills to advance a young person’s prospects are confined to the well educated or those judged to be more literate. Yet the Beat has found that the very act of writing (and drawing) improves the skills of those who may desire them the most, but lack opportunities to develop them.
Beyond its core activities, The Beat Within collaborates on projects to place incarcerated youths’ voices into a public forum. Since 2010, The Crime Report (a criminal justice website of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in NYC) features the writings from The Beat each month, and San Francisco State University produced a video on The Beat Within’s workshops and history. Also,The Beat has partnered the last two years with Southern Exposure (SoEx), which is a San Francisco nonprofit visual arts organization that supports emerging artists and youth in a dynamic environment in which they can develop and present new work and ideas.
The SoEx Artists in Education Program and The Beat partnership provides youth with a consistent opportunity to share their artistic ideas and experiences in a safe space that encourages literacy and self-expression. SoEx offers artistic support through consistent weekly workshops in the San Francisco and Alameda County Juvenile Justice Center to build on acquired skills and ideas.
These young people in the San Francisco and Alameda County Juvenile Justice Centers make collaborative and individual artworks that are published in each issue of The Beat Within.
Graffiti is a common site in the neighborhood around the Access Art Gallery in Denver – not inside, hanging on the walls – but scribbled, pasted or painted on nearly every dumpster and wall for blocks.
“There’s a lot kids going back and forth through the neighborhood. There was tagging all over the place,” says Damon McLeese, the gallery’s executive director.
Like many places across the country, Denver’s streets show scars of vandalism: Stickers on street signs, scrawls of fat-tipped markers across doorways, and spray paint arching down from seemingly impossible heights.
But where many businesses would have seen an unstoppable scourge of youth defacing private property, McLeese saw an opportunity for a project that would redirect some of the kids’ creative energies and help improve the community.
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Graffiti might be more visible to the average person now than ever before, not because vandals have bombed every wall, but because it has infiltrated popular culture in ways many people could have never imagined in the early 1980s when it first appeared on the walls of art galleries in lower Manhattan.
From those humble roots, contemporary artists such as Banksy and Shepard Fairey, to name just two, have transitioned from petty criminals to icons of the art world (and reaped the financial windfalls of their success as well). The aesthetic influence of decade’s worth of wild style lettering can be seen in advertising, fashion and countless ways throughout popular culture.
There are no national statistics kept about graffiti, but its cost doesn’t go unnoticed by the local governments that must spend millions of dollars annually on clean-up, enforcement and incarcerations tied to the illicit artwork.
For example, during fiscal year 2010-11, Los Angeles “removed 35.4 million square feet of graffiti…an 8.2 percent jump over last year,” according to a New York Times article from July 2011 about the increasing volume of graffiti in cities across the country.
Graffiti might have gained acceptance in the art world, but the perceived increase in vandalism has led to stricter enforcement and increased punishments for taggers in cities across the country, like more stringent curfew laws and prohibiting sales of spray paint to minors.
* * * * * *
The program at Access Gallery doesn’t just hand out paint to kids who aren’t old enough to purchase it in stores.
“Our mission is, we’re working with artists primarily with disabilities,” McLeese explains. “What we’re doing is working with kids in the neighborhood, but they’re being taught by a man with a disability who has street credibility.”
He’s referring to Javier Flores, a well-known graffiti artist in Denver who heads the mural program at the gallery. McLeese attributes much of the program’s success over the past several years to the respect Flores commands from his mentees.
“I know what it’s like to be a teenager and getting into trouble for tagging. I definitely went through that phase of my life,” says Flores. “If you delve too deep into that world you’ll get stuck there. I noticed that with a lot of people that I was around. They got stuck being that graffiti guy.”
Flores was drawn to graffiti as a teenager, tagging in the streets of Los Angeles during the mid-to-late-1990s, but while he watched his friends get stuck in the graffiti lifestyle, he wanted more for himself. He was an artist, not a tagger.
After graduating from college, he discovered the Access Gallery and was appreciative that they worked closely with the disabled community.
“I told Damon if he ever had anything he wanted me to volunteer for that I would,” Flores says. Just a few months later, McLeese called to ask whether he’d be interested in a job working with kids in the mural program. Several years later, he’s still involved and appreciates the opportunity to help guide kids past the pitfalls that claimed some of his friends growing up.
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Ratha Sok was one of those neighborhood kids whose tag could be spotted on any number of walls surrounding the Access Gallery back before the mural program ever existed.
“I graduated from West High School, which is right down the street from Access Gallery, so I was always in that neighborhood,” says Sok.
The son of Cambodian refugees who found their way to America after escaping the Khmer Rouge, Sok was drawn to graffiti early in his teens. His friends discovered break dancing, but he was more interested in tagging. Soon thereafter, he started cutting school in order to paint.
He had a unique approach: Sok was trying to write messages that inspired him and his friends. He’d get up on a wall, but he’d also leave behind messages like “Don’t waste your talent,” instead of just his name.
While his content might have been different, he still had to face the harsh truth that his work was illegal. The day after his 16th birthday local police came to his house and gave him a set of handcuffs as a belated gift. They had already gathered evidence from his school and house. It would be sufficient to lock him up on vandalism charges.
However, the experience would turn out to be a positive turning point in Sok’s life; he would soon discover the depths of his entrepreneurial spirit.
“My friend came to my door and asked me to draw his girlfriend’s name for five jolly ranchers,” Sok says, describing the moment when he realized he could leverage his skill and passion for personal gain. “When he did that, it attracted other people, and they saw my talents and started supporting me.”
What began with custom artwork in exchange for candy quickly grew into a desire to start a business.
“I knew that I always wanted to become a streetwear brand, but I didn’t have the resources to do it,” says Sok. “I had to figure out a way to build credibility and funds at the same time.”
He started out with some friends, painting custom hats and selling them at events. From there, he expanded into custom t-shirts and other items. Now, having folded his first endeavor, 2Kool, Sok is developing his new brand, Rawh Expressions, with the goal of helping to inspire and empower his community – the same idea that pushed him to paint messages like “Don’t waste your talent,” back in his early days in graffiti.
Since then, Sok has won awards, spoken at a local TEDx event and been written about by local and nationalmedia. Now, instead of spending time locked up, he goes back to the juvenile detention center once a year to talk to the kids about how to follow their passion in order to improve their lives.
“I’ve done it for the past three years, and some of the youth are still there,” says Sok. “Over the years, you can see them start to change their mindset. That’s really inspiring.”
* * * * * *
“A lot of these kids never think about turning their creativity into a career,” Damon McLeese, the Access Gallery’s Executive Director explains. “If you think about it, there are a lot of opportunities.”
The mural program at Access Gallery is what McLeese describes as “simple redirection.” The opportunity to learn about graffiti art might entice the youth to join the program, but once they are there, they are exposed to a wide variety of different opportunities.
Through a mix of mentoring, artist residencies and local field trips, the kids in the program have learned about printmaking, photography, architecture and more. Perhaps most importantly, the kids learn that pursuing art can be profitable as well. Money earned by the program from mural commissions or sales of youth-created artwork is divided up among the group.
“The thing that we’re really pushing for these kids is that, yeah, you’re creative and artistic, but if you’re going to tag on buildings, you’re gonna get arrested and really limit your options,” says McLeese. “If we can get you money for your work, isn’t that a lot better than being arrested for your work?”
The kids in the program aren’t all burgeoning young vandals. Each year, the class is comprised of a mix of students, including high school age kids with experience in graffiti and some children with developmental disabilities (often A.D.D. or autism) who are interested in the art, but wouldn’t otherwise have access to learn about it.
According to Flores, graffiti offers a way for the kids to work together on a project and be part of something. It’s a great medium for teaching a range of skill levels too. “It’s so forgiving,” he says. “You can make a mistake and then spray over it. That’s one of the best things I can teach them.”
* * * * * *
“We still see a lot of scribbles and tags,” McLeese says. “We haven’t seen a decrease in our neighborhood, but across the city there seems to be less.”
Even after five years, the mural program hasn’t stopped graffiti altogether. No one thought it would. The program can only take 10-12 students per year, a small percentage of the total number of kids wandering the streets and tagging.
“You can’t stop graffiti, so it’s a matter of reducing the amount of tagging that happens in a city,” Flores explains. “That’s one thing we help. If they don’t have an outlet, these kids are gonna do what they’re gonna do, and more than likely they’re gonna do tagging.”
While no program could stop graffiti in its tracks, the Access Gallery has begun to improve the opportunities and outcomes available to neighborhood kids who might not have ever discovered how to turn their passion into a profession. In addition to the success of Ratha Sok and Rawh Expressions, McLeese runs down a list of kids who’ve been through the program and are now in college, including some who’ve gone on to study art and design at prominent institutions. He’s also hired several alumni back to help with the summer program.
“We’re working with them on job skills to increase their likelihood of employment down the road using art as the basis,” says McLeese. “We’re still seeing tagging, but there are also a lot more redirection programs.”
After feeling the pride of completing a mural, and learning that their passion can also lead to economic opportunity, many of the kids in the program become as interested in growing up as they are in getting up on walls.
Youth in Access Gallery mural program photo credits: Access Gallery
When a Jersey City teenager started tagging and defacing public advertisements back in the early 1990’s, he had no clue it would turn into a lucrative art career. But that’s the story of Brian Donnelly, better known as “KAWS,” that has led him to a multi-sight exhibition at Atlanta’s High Museum of Art.
Perched on the top floor above the High’s Picasso to Warhol exhibit, KAWS’ installment “DOWN TIME” seems to bring the Modernism housed in the levels below into the modern times they helped create.
His work is strange, yet strikingly familiar, and why wouldn’t it be? It’s essentially a commentary on pop-culture, drawn from pop culture and stamped on pop culture -– it has become pop culture. KAWS has taken on the manipulation (or perhaps re-imagination) of such iconic characters as Mickey Mouse, The Simpsons and Sponge Bob Square Paints. His street-art style dots urban encampments around the globe and offers imagery virtually every culture can relate to.
The High exhibition features a number of these icons, including a 16-foot tall sculpture of Mickey Mouse-like sculpture dubbed “Companion” in the museum’s piazza. A florescent color palette and tight cropped compositions of cartoonish features make a gridded install of 27 round paintings pop off the wall with a questioning familiarity. The images appear as if part of a larger story and narrative unfolding just out of frame (or on your TV screen at home) as you go on about your life, from advertisement to advertisement.
As the young artist gained popularity back in the ‘90s, his subversive images -- scrawled on billboards, bus stops and phone booths -- became hot commodities. Eventually, this work would prove to be a precursor to actual collaboration with commercial photographers and brands.
When KAWS met British photographer David Sims, who happened to have shot a number of the ad campaigns KAWS had worked on top of, a few years back it was the start of a series that would find its way to the walls of the High. KAWS took his acrylic paints to Sims’s actual photos, producing a unique infusion of two rival forms of accepted popular culture that constituted a sizable portion of his installment at the High.
Since the early days, KAWS has also branched out from graffiti -– far out. He doesn’t even do graffiti anymore, at least not on city walls, but the elements of his youth are unmistakable and irreplaceable in his work. Simply put, KAWS has his hands in everything from limited-edition vinyl toys and t-shirt design to fine art painting and sculpting. That also puts him at the crossroads of a variety of different worlds. For toy collectors he’s the toy maker, for graffiti artists he’s the street artist, for art aficionados he’s the painter.
Yet somehow his work finds a strange continuity between distinct groups with unique tastes, in the United States and abroad. In this ever more interconnected world it’s entirely possible, more than anything else, that KAWS’ work illustrates we’re all part of a global culture, transversing borders and long standing notions of what individuality and uniqueness actually are.
“KAWS: DOWN TIME” will be on display at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta until May 20, 2012.
Few places in the world hold the level of hopelessness of an African prison, for the most part vortexes that may release a human but never the human spirit. Now imagine a prison in a failed state in Africa. Now imagine a prison in a failed state in Africa that holds children.
This is the nightmare Moleres has found. No, it is not the worst place on Earth and yes there is human suffering that far surpasses what one finds in the Pademba Road Prison in Sierra Leone’s capital, Freetown. But his work in this place, the images of the young and the hopeless, the squalor, the confines, the emotion, the dark cells streaked with precious sunlight, are a testament to how frightfully low a society can sink. And yet, it is also a reminder that the lack of amenities, if you will, are about the only thing that separates the misery of the Pedemba Prison from any given youth detention center in the United States.
If only Moleres’ work were about confinement and nothing else. There are wrongful convictions in this nation and other parts of the developed world, and structural deficiencies that put the poor at a disadvantage, to that question there is no doubt. But it is an understatement to say there is towering injustice in Sierra Leone, in Pademba Road and in Makeni Prison the decrepit provincial “facility” Moleres also visited.
Know this is not an easy journey for the viewer to take. Witness them though, because Moleres handles this horror with skill, grace and caring in a way that makes you understand the way of grotesque jurisprudence in another world. It is a strange soul indeed that would refuse to be stirred to outrage over these photographs.
So see it for what it is.
See a menacing guard with mirrored glasses, a necklace of handcuffs dangling around his neck, an image that foreshadows what is to come in Moleres’ essay. This power figure in uniform stands on the back end of a freight car, or more accurately a cargo of human beings. Then there is the more personal; a small boy named Abdul, in court, then the shock of him literally behind bars. Such a cliché shot is hard to get in the States these days, but here it is, in all its stomach-churning glory.
But perhaps the most telling image isn’t of prison bars or even an inmate, but of a clerk, seemingly asleep on his desk, a paralyzed and rotting bureaucracy showering down around him.
Farther down Pademba Road, into its hallways and inner cells you see the prison-scape that comes about when 1,100 men and boys are crammed into a space meant for 300.
The photography of this has been done before. It has even been done here, in this sprawling cage in Freetown. But Moleres somehow has found a deeper hopelessness, something that brings to mind slaving ships, the forgoing of freedom altogether.
He has managed to burrow so deeply into this subject because he cares so about what is going on here, the naked injustice of it all.
In a September 2011 interview with the British Journal of Photography, his frustration with the NGO community rose to the surface and exploded into the atmosphere. No one, not the United Nations, not the Red Cross, not Medecins du Monde, cared enough about the situation at Pademba Road Prison to do anything about it.
“When I was in Sierra Leone,” he told the Journal, a representative from the [United Nations] came to the prison to visit the detainees. I went with him. He talked with a few dealers, the guards, etc. But when other detainees came to see him to denounce the injustice of the entire system, his answer was: ‘I'm not here to solve your personal problems.’ This man, whose name is Antonio Maria Costa [was the former head of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime], has access to the country's vice president and home affairs minister. He could have done something about it, but he chose not to.”
Cantankerous? You bet he is. Then again, he’s got a right to be. Fernando Moleres is a one-man advocate for the children in this prison, so much so that he’s set his own structure in place to bail them out before they are lost, forever. He calls it, Free Minor Africa and in time he may just shame the mighty NGOs of the world into funding it.
This is not a passing fancy for Moleres. He’s been working the Pademba Road Prison project since 2007 and he’s been at photography for half his life, winning numerous top honors in international photography, including the the Luis Valtuena International Humanitarian Photography Award for his work in Sierra Leone.
He’ll take the accolades but he’ll also use his stage to call out the unwilling and scream to high heaven the injustice of Pademba Road and beyond.
The Editors managed an email exchange with Moleres recently when he was briefly at home in Barcelona (he's on the road a lot) and took the opportunity to ask a few questions.
Question: Has the attitude of the NGOs (non-governmental organizations, international relief groups, non-profits) changed in Sierra Leone? Are they so still so insensitive?
Fernando Moleres: Not all the NGOs are the same, not all the people inside them function the same way. My experience with the NGOs is that they are slow to act, all their decisions have to be made by consensus and within a bureaucratic process. The big NGOs have inflexible structures where it is very difficult to contact the person in charge of making decisions. Plans have to be made years before they will be carried out and an enormous amount of energy is spent in the administration.
When I asked the NGOs in Sierra Leona if I could help the prisoners, young or old, no one could offer me any help, suggestion nor interest for my request for what I was telling them.
Question: What is the status of Free Minor Africa? Are you getting support, contributions, from organizations and individuals?
FM: No, the project FMA, at this moment has no support. I have been getting some money by selling my pictures, ...or selling some photos or videos to some small magazines interested in this subject. All the money, 100%, goes to the project. Up to this moment only two persons have donated a total of $80. In total, FMA has $4,000 and there is a volunteer who will go to Sierra Leona. She will be paying her own way.
Question: How can people help?
FM: Go to the web page where you can find information on how to help directly or you may buy a photo to help Free Minor Africa. If someone wants to travel to Sierra Leone put them in contact with me.
Target is offering a grant to bring the arts into the schools. Music, art, dance, drama and visual arts are all part of the well-rounded education for kids. This helps expand creativity and horizons and could even help keep kids out of trouble. The grants are worth $2,000 and are accepted between March 1 and April 30, 2011.