Flash Points

Teaching with Contemporary Art

Making Artistic Noise Part 1: Art and Social Activism with Incarcerated Youth


noise [noiz]
noun – a loud, surprising, irritating, or unwanted sound

In 2001, I was approached by Fran Sherman of the Juvenile Rights Advocacy Project to help develop an arts curriculum for a group of incarcerated girls. I never thought that eight years later I would be so heavily involved in this work. Fran and I began working on a mixed media visual autobiography project with a small group of girls in a Boston detention center. From the very beginning, the power artmaking had in such an institutional setting was obvious. Creativity and the freedom of expression involved in art is a sharp contrast from the daily life of a young person confined in a correctional facility. Through structured arts and entrepreneurship programming, the youth we work with feel safe expressing their experiences, ideas, and opinions. They feel empowered once they realize their perspective is valuable, important, and can reach a broader public.

It was through creating this original curriculum that Hear Us Make Artistic Noise (H.U.M.A.N.) in Boston and Artistic Noise in NY were formed. Both are small non-profit organizations that combine arts and entrepreneurship to build teens’ strengths, improve their ties to the community, and empower them within the juvenile justice system to advocate for themselves. As a small grassroots organization, we are able to stay in close contact with the youth we work with for many years. We focus on the transitional time from incarceration through the return home and to community. It is only through this continued support that we can really begin to impact the lives of young people involved in the justice system.

One of our original members who began working with us while incarcerated in Boston at the age of 18 is now the Assistant Director of H.U.M.A.N. The impact an arts program can have on a young person is best said in her own words:

Sitting on the inside, behind bars, made me feel like a criminal, but I knew I wasn’t. I was broken down and emotionally hurt from things that had happened and things that were to come. My time inside was like a vacation from my negative experiences. When I aged, out I was on my own and had to make the right decisions, but it’s hard to go straight after you have already taken the wrong road. The streets are like a drug—they’re addictive—and keep calling you and calling you. But my art teacher asked me if I wanted to take my art further. I told her yeah. Now look at me—I named H.U.M.A.N.—I’m a founding member, I’m selling my work, I never go broke, and I’m staying off the streets. But it’s hard for me to come up after all the things I’ve seen and had happen to me. I like doing art because it relaxes me, and all my hate is on paper, not in me.

Many of the young people we work with do not necessarily consider themselves artists at first. In fact, many of our most involved members began the program saying they couldn’t draw. Our philosophy is rooted deeply in contemporary art and does not initially focus on technique but on ideas. Art provides a visual language that can be powerful and direct. It offers a venue where youth can cope with and communicate their life experiences—even when challenging and difficult—and assert their voice positively.

Like many contemporary artists and activists, we focus on both the individual process and the ability of collaboration to initiate dialogue about social and political issues. In so many circumstances, society fails our young people. Laws are created that greatly affect their lives but rarely reflect their voice. Allowing youth to develop their individual and collaborative voice encourages students to experience a sense of personal accomplishment, develop new relationships, and become part of a community. Artistic Noise takes this process one step further by providing these youth a platform to articulate their ideas, concerns, and experiences to other people.

An example from The Pillowcase Project

A student's artwork from "The Pillowcase Project"

Teenage girls are the fastest growing segment of the juvenile justice system, so public awareness is crucial. Though girls in the system have a rich experience and a great deal to say, they have few places to be heard. One example of this is called The Pillowcase Project, an ongoing public artwork piloted with girls at the Brooklyn Residential Center and The Rose M. Singer Center on Riker’s Island. Participants in this project were asked to illustrate their dreams onto pillowcases. They could interpret the definition of a dream as fragmented visions they remember from their subconscious state, or as an aspiration for the future. These paintings represent the creative minds of the young artists involved and are intended to share their insight and personalize their experiences. This creative act is of particular importance here, as it confronts the viewer to consider these youths as individuals rather than statistics. As this project and the amount of pillowcases exhibited continue  to grow, they bring the viewer’s attention to the amount of young women whose lives are affected by the juvenile justice system.

Artistic Noise runs programs through The Children’s Aid Society’s (CAS) LINC Program in community centers, detention centers, and alternatives to detention sites in Brooklyn, The Bronx, and Harlem. Every year Artistic Noise has an art exhibit at NYU’s Commons Gallery. The youth are responsible for curating and organizing all aspects of the show. Last year their group artist’s statement reflected the need for their art to be shown to the public:

Perception/ Direction
Sometimes trying too hard
Trying to be understood
Not always understanding ourselves
We lose ourselves in our art
Unable to voice our opinions
No one wants to listen…
Because they choose not to
They’re set in their ways of how to see us
No way to change their perceptions
But, what they don’t understand is that
We’re going in a new direction

Many of the projects we work on with the youth in detention focuses on the concept of voice and getting their voice heard—in short, making artistic noise. Noise is not something you choose to listen to but something that is hard to ignore.

Continued tomorrow in part 2…

Lauren Adelman is an artist educator living in Brooklyn, New York. Lauren co-founded the non-profit organizations H.U.M.A.N. (Hear Us Make Artistic Noise) in Boston and Artistic Noise in NY, which bring visual arts and entrepreneurship to incarcerated and formerly incarcerated youth. Lauren is also a freelance educator for MoMA and has been an artist-in-residence in many different settings, including professional printmaking studios and detention and residential centers.