Detained Youth Freed Through Art

By Adrienne LaFrance
March 13, 2006

It’s not an area of Boston that tends to attract art-goers. And the works are not by those normally considered artists. “Visual Voices of Detained Youth” was on display at the Rhys Gallery in South Boston through March 4, 2006 but the implications of the exhibit live on. The Rhys Gallery even established a permanent website to commemorate the exhibit, especially since budget cuts have since ended the art program.

For three short weeks, detained adolescents had the opportunity to showcase their artwork on the walls of a professional gallery. Their names, ages, crimes and all details of their lives were omitted, reflecting their position in society. Even the number of contributing artists was unknown to gallery director Colin Rhys, who received thousands of pieces of art but selected around 125 for display, opting for a professional exhibit as opposed to one that felt like a middle-school hallway on parents’ night.

Despite identifying information withheld, knowing that all contributing individuals are detained youth makes it difficult not to read into the emotion behind the art as product of artists’ troubled backgrounds. Yet, anyone’s childhood art portfolio might include something suggesting a scope of emotion beyond the generic row of smiling stick figures outside a square house with a yellow sun hanging overhead.

Nevertheless, there isn’t much sunlight and hardly any smiles depicted in this exhibit. A sense of burden that many young people can’t imagine is evident in the tilted mouths of those illustrated, the slanting eyebrows; not quite sad, not quite angry, but certainly not happy.

In one piece, a black bird with wings sweeping downward flies across a grey cemetery under the black smudges of dark clouds. A piece featuring a vibrant blue sky depicts a street corner with burnt orange rectangular buildings, a school bus boxed in the corner and an angel, larger than the buildings, sitting above the bus, head hanging and arms draped over knees. This isn’t an angel trumpeting joyful praise but seems exhausted. A sketch nearby that looks to be the beginning of that same bright street corner is sharp-angled with soft penciling. Uneven capital letters spell out “AN UNFINISHED CITY” toward the bottom.

The urban influence is the exhibit’s common thread—aside from the obvious common thread of the artists themselves– with countless depictions of skyscrapers and concrete. One piece with the jet-black asphalt of a city street and red buildings features the words “DARK FROZEN STREETS.”

Another shows a road that ends at a single skinny streetlight, the background bathed in feathery darkness. One features a cluster of city buildings ablaze, while another shows an alien attack on a city with the word “help” bubbling from the mouth of a figure in the foreground.

But as prevalent as representations of a cold, hard city are, present also are reminders that these artists are children; not obvious just by the quality of work, but by the subjects depicted.

A color-splashed Rafiki, the loveable old baboon from Disney’s “The Lion King,” adorns one wall. In another piece, Tweety Bird wears a patterned space suit and stands tall on a dome next to the words “First Cartoon Character on the Moon.” There’s an unmistakable likeness of the Pink Panther but something’s askew. This panther is blue and green, his eyes are bloodshot and one arm drapes lazily over a (barbed-wire?) fence with his face resting in his other hand, looking less mischievous and more exasperated than his famous pink counterpart.

Pop-culture references are not limited to cartoons. One artist chose to feature a likeness of “The Scream,” with what looks to be a broken mirror, suggesting that Edvard Munch’s famous robed figure feared his own reflection all along. Another likeness of “The Scream” shows it taking place between two skyscrapers with the initials N.Y., which serves as a chilling reminder of 9/11, though whether or not the artist intended the connection is unknown.

One piece shows a bald, green-faced figure with pointed eyebrows lending to a wicked gleam. In passing, it’s reminiscent of Leonetto Cappiello’s famously reproduced “Green Devil,” but amongst a collection of depictions of aliens and robots, the link is likely coincidental.

While there is much to infer about the exhibit in its entirety, the clarity of emotion in some pieces leaves little to controversy. For example, one unmistakably violent piece features a drawing of a cat’s head impaled by a spear, the bloody arrowhead pointing upward above lifeless eyes.

A drawing of an impressively shaded man’s face, creased with anger and mouth widened in a shout, is sandwiched between two drawings of faces, lighter in color and less harsh in expression, looking worn and tired. One artist makes bunnies look anything but cute and fluffy. The leader of three scowling rabbits (or are they men wearing rabbit ears?) appears to have a crooked scar across the right side of its face and two carrots (cigarettes?) clamped in its mouth.

Knowing that the artists are detained adolescents adds an element of profundity to the exhibit that may take on a guise of artistic value intrinsic to the works themselves (though it’s essential to mention that some of the artists show artistic talent and promise), but the valuable thing about this exhibit isn’t about the products or even who these artists are, it’s that they have been given a chance to express themselves in a way that they may not have been able to before.

And considering that the Rhys Gallery returned all the proceeds from the exhibit to the Department of Youth Services for art supplies and continued art education those opportunities don’t have to end as long as the visual voices of detained youth aren’t silenced.

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