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Helping Incarcerated Kids Free Their Minds

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By Fred Camper

Three teenage boys are talking about a poster they've made. Over an anatomical drawing of a heart they've applied such unanatomical words as "pedagogy" and "privation." One boy, Fernando, says these are "new words that nobody really thinks of, so when they look at this they'll think." He then adds that it's "a good idea to make people think." Another boy, Fred, concurs, "That'll make the art more interesting."

The idea that art should make you think isn't new, but what's unusual is that these artists are residents of the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center, once known as the Audy Home, a large complex that houses youths while they await trial for offenses ranging from misdemeanors to violent felonies. For the last three years Michael Piazza has been coming here, working on a variety of art projects with the boys or girls who are interested; an exhibit of their collaborations -- drawings, posters, audiotapes, videos, installations -- opens Friday night at N.A.M.E. Gallery.

Piazza first started thinking about the detention center after moving with his wife, Laura, and two young sons to the southern edge of Logan Square in 1989. "We started doing art classes for neighborhood kids in the summer. We would just open our doors, and they would come over and work on paintings or drawings. Later, some of the children we had worked with became teenagers and got sent to the center for something that they did." Piazza, a home owner, says he gets "incredibly pissed off" by crime but acknowledges that the situation is "incredibly complicated in the gang culture. You don't know who's taking the fall. A lot of these kids come to the aid of someone else."

Piazza, 41, came of age at "the tail end of the hippies." He read the Communist Manifesto at 15, "and I was suddenly branded as a communist." He recalls that his freshman year at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign "was the first year there weren't riots, which I was gearing up for. Streaking happened; fraternities became popular again; everyone was already distancing themselves from demonstrations. I felt incredibly let down." Identifying himself as a "leftist anarchist," he disliked "the top-down sort of approach" of most political organizations, and he found that he was increasingly drawn to art. Believing that the artist was "a part of society and not in some sort of ivory tower," he became interested in collaborations.

Piazza was influenced by the "liberation education" theories of Brazilian writer Paulo Friere. He says Friere argued that "everyone is a learner" and believed in abandoning "the notion of the teacher as being the full-headed one and everyone else having empty heads."

Piazza begins working with the kids at the detention center by talking to them in small groups, "to get an idea of what everyone is interested in." No one is forced to participate. "I try to have the idea first come from them," Piazza says, "and then I can respond to it, maybe with something that they hadn't thought about, to open up possibilities."

He noticed that some of the boys were making the traditional tattoo drawing of a heart with a dagger or a scroll. So this March he got them talking "about what the heart actually does." He brought in anatomical drawings, and the group chose to work with the heart that looked the most interesting, according to Miguel, one of the residents. Miguel and Fernando got the idea to replace the anatomical labels on the drawings with "words from their lives." Then Piazza brought in a thesaurus and asked them to find a different word for each of the words they had chosen. "They could have said no, but they jumped at it," Piazza says. "Words that don't get used much became a sort of power point that made the project more interesting to them." Thus, "walk" became "ambulate"; "loss" became "privation"; "food" became "sustenance." The boys applied the new labels with press type. Their collaborative work, Heart, will be in "Arrested Motion," the exhibit at N.A.M.E. The same group is now working on a similar poster of the brain.

Piazza frequently asks the residents to relate art to their lives. "Art is something I'd never really got into till I got here," Fernando says. Once Piazza asked them each to pick a photo of a person. "I picked a picture of a person crying and praying," Fernando says. "That's what I do."

The projects often begin with something a bit less profound. When, for example, Piazza asked Fred what kind of things he'd like to make, Fred told him a volcano with money and candy bars. But then Fred got serious: "I looked in a book to see how you shape it. I drew it and colored it. Then we made a clay volcano." Piazza has taken the clay volcano to be fired. "We are going to color it and put growing plants around it," Fred says.

For many of these residents, completing a work is an accomplishment in itself. "One guy drew superheroes really well," Piazza says. "He really wanted to do a comic book but was having trouble doing a story, and there was this nervousness about misspelling words. I got him a dictionary; he finished one, and then the second one came on its own just like that."

The residents have also made audiotapes about their environment, with the assistance of the Experimental Sound Studio. Jorge and Kenny worked together on one of the three tapes that will be part of the N.A.M.E. exhibit. Kenny drew a floor plan--which he calls "sheet music"--of their unit. On it he mapped out where they'd record. The banging noises on the tape were "kind of my idea," Kenny says. "Sometimes we look out and see people walking by outside and beat on the wall to get their attention. We taped that." There are other sounds. "People talking through walls," says Jorge. "People talking in the shower," says Kenny. The tape was edited according to their instructions for cuts and fade-outs. "It was fun," Jorge says. Piazza got it broadcast on WBEZ. "We thought it wasn't going to make it that far," Jorge says. "I thought it would just stay in the institution. But people liked it." Kenny says, "My family can hear it and have something they can be proud of me for."

In 1994 Piazza entered work in the Palmer Square Art Fair that the residents had produced during the previous year and their installation won first prize in their age category. The group received a trophy, a globe, and a family membership to the Art Institute. Piazza says he told an art fair official, "'But they're incarcerated.' She said, 'Maybe they can go on a field trip.' She didn't understand."

Piazza tried to contact the Art Institute to discuss how they might make use of the membership; he was offered some slides. He began to think that their predictament could be the basis for another art project. He gathered some of the winners together. "'You got this art membership,'" Piazza recalls telling them, "'and I thought maybe we could figure out how you would utilize it.'" One boy, Anthony, said he would like to map out a trip to the Art Institute through the sewer system. Piazza got a hold of the pertinent maps through the Department of Streets and Sanitation, and Anthony drew out his route. Piazza acknowledges it's a kind of escape fantasy and recalls having read about drawings on cell walls of train tracks that disappear into a crack and move "your mind beyond the situation that you're in so that you can still exist elsewhere." (Anthony, however, did wait until his legal release to leave.)

Others perused reproductions in an Art Institute guidebook. "Everyone labeled paintings they enjoy looking at or respond to," Piazza says, "using the property tags that their possessions get tagged with when they first come in." They wrote brief descriptions on the tags: "pure nature" for a Frederick Church; "it shows the power of the woman" for El Greco's Assumption of the Virgin; "the world, freedom" for a Claude Lorrain landscape drawing. These labels and the book will also be installed at N.A.M.E.

Darnell was one of the collaborators on the art-fair project, but he was in prison in Galesburg when Piazza began discussing what to do with the Art Institute membership. "Michael came out to see me," recalls Darnell. "He asked me to think of some ideas. I decided since I couldn't use my pass maybe we should bury it. It made me feel good on the inside to know that I won something; it made me feel good to know that one day I can go back and dig it up." A videotape Piazza shot shows the burial at a site halfway between the Art Institute and Galesburg. "Darnell wanted it to be marked with a dark stone," he says. "I think that has something to do with the holy Kaaba," the Islamic shrine in Mecca. Darnell is now locked up in Menard, where he continues to make art. He says it gives him "an opportunity to do something here in the joint to stay out of trouble." He's planning a trip to the Art Institute when he's released later this month--he barely remembers visiting it as a child--and is also looking at art school information that Piazza's wife has given him.

Spurning the ideal of the autonomous artist, Piazza has long tried to create things that aren't "just of one mind." He says that perhaps his "vision of utopia resides where there's no difference between what I do in art and my life; it gets back to the Joseph Beuys concept of everyone being an artist." He has an interest in "the oppressed," in "another sort of population that has not gone to art school." He remarks on the "voices that have been excluded from art making; there are many documentaries that are about--rather than by--certain populations." Working with incarcerated youth and exhibiting their work are ways of calling attention to what he calls the "incarceration culture" in which "everything is sort of expanding: the number of facilities, the number of jobs one can get from the facilities."

Piazza also hopes to help individuals, and it seems that he has. Darnell, who has worked with Piazza on several projects, including a mural that's painted on a wall at the detention center, says, "Michael was asking me to draw some people who I felt were important; I felt Malcolm X was very important. He gave me a picture of Malcolm; he taught me how to do it. I sketched it freehand. I painted it on the wall and I saw it actually looked like the real Malcolm X. I never really did take art seriously before; I thought I didn't have what it takes to be a good artist. Michael brought it out of me. I fell in love with art. He really turned on the light of understanding that was already within me."

When first asked how working with Darnell might have changed the young man's life, Piazza hesitates, and then replies that it could have been as simple as Darnell "learning to trust a white guy."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Uncredited photo of Michael Piazza, photo of "The Heart" poster.

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