How One Art Program Transforms the Lives of Incarcerated Youths

Artistic Noise’s grassroots efforts are planting the seeds of hope for adolescents in the juvenile justice system.

‘MLK,’ by Angel. (Photo: Courtesy Artistic Noise)

Jun 30, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Gwendolyn Wu is an editorial intern at TakePart and a junior at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Creating Russian nesting dolls, patchwork quilts, and collages—thanks to the nonprofit Artistic Noise, those are just some of the creative ways youths involved with the juvenile justice system are expressing their experiences with issues such as police brutality and racism in America.

Those experiences were on display during the last week of June at Infinite Revolution, an exhibit at New York University’s The Commons Gallery. The gallery show, which celebrated Artistic Noise’s 15th anniversary, was curated by and featured works produced by youths involved in the program over the past 15 years.

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The organization, based in New York City and Boston, connects artists with youths ages 13 to 25 who are—or were—incarcerated or on probation. “These are the ones society might shrug and say ‘It’s a lost cause; they’re too far gone to be helped,’ ” Lia O’Donnell, the director of development at Artistic Noise, told TakePart. Through workshops and mentorship, Artistic Noise provides “proven risk” youths—teens who have been gang involved, on drugs, or locked up—with creative, life, and entrepreneurial skills, she said.

(Photo: Artistic Noise)

Artistic Noise works with nearly 200 young people each year, but given the number of court-involved youths, the need for similar programs exists. Nationally, about 1.7 million juvenile cases make their way through the U.S. court system each year.

“Detention was horrible. The food was horrible. Being in there was like you’re just an animal caged in all day, and you just get everything taken away,” a youth artist, a minor whose name is withheld, says in the Artistic Noise–produced video below about his experience being locked up. “The only thing that kind of kept me going was when Artistic Noise came in, and it was the only thing I looked forward to doing.”

At the gallery show at NYU, the works on display combined various art forms with pop culture. One group of young artists created a mixed-media series inspired by rapper Kendrick Lamar’s album To Pimp a Butterfly; the group used linocut to print portraits of influential musicians and inspirational historical figures onto New York City subway maps.

‘Lil Snupe’ by Jackiee. Linocut and New York subway map. (Photo: Courtesy Artistic Noise)

“There was a really high contrast between the negative space of the print and the rich texture of the New York City subway map,” O’Donnell said. “Because our space in Harlem is the true embodiment of the city and the place where the youth are living and their lives unfold, to see it put on the subway map was very visually beautiful.”

Fostering a sense of identity and stability is crucial to success after youths are released from detention centers, and creative expression helps young people heal from trauma, according to the National Clearinghouse on Families and Youth.

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“The juvenile justice system often shuts people away and silences them, and to give them a space that allows them to articulate their own experience and get positive recognition allows them to find their own power,” Artistic Noise cofounder Lauren Adelman, who started the organization in Massachusetts in 2001, told TakePart.

Jessica Bynoe, the executive director of Variety the Children’s Charity of New York, which financially sponsors Artistic Noise, wrote in an email to TakePart that she has seen how the nonprofit transforms underserved children’s lives.

“For young people who may not have voice or choice in everyday occurrences, the arts helps them find a voice and express their ideas, hopes, dreams, desires and fears,” Bynoe wrote. “The process and products resulting from young people engaging in the arts can have a lasting impact not only on the individual youth as they find new confidence and motivation for success, but also on the very communities, systems, structures, and societal injustices they explore through their art.”

For Adelman, seeing how youths transform is the ultimate measure of success. “The more they participate in things like this, the more they realize that people really want to hear what they have to say, their artwork, and their story,” she said.

‘Untitled’ by Bishop. Mixed media. (Photo: Courtesy Artistic Noise)