This past Friday at the Chicago Art Department in Pilsen, the walls were covered with the words and paintings of the incarcerated youth of Cook County. In Free Write Jail Arts’ second exhibition, entitled “Big Dreams I’m Chasing,” Program Director Ryan Keesling and his staff provided a creative outlet to incarcerated Chicago teens. Many of them rely on the program to relay a message of the injustices they and their loved ones have faced, and to express hope for getting through their hard times. For nearly forty juveniles who, in Keesling’s words, are “stuck in a place without any voice,” Free Write Jail Arts is giving them a platform.
Contrasting with the rather lively atmosphere of the exhibit, filled with bright lighting, casual chatter and soft keyboard music, the artwork and poems on display speak of an entirely different scene. As parents of some of the artists gleam with appreciation, and other attendees listen to the recordings of the poems, each work showcases a personal story. On one wall is a portrait of a black youth with a gun in his hand, along with the phrase “Nobody never gave me nothing before.” Hanging directly next to the portrait is a poem by fourteen-year-old Kiara, the title of which is the inspiration for that of the exhibit. In her poem, she yearns for a better life and suggests the importance of making a change in her environment. “Stay away from people I’m with/Cause it’s slowly killing me,” she writes. Despite the wrongdoings and difficulties the youth have faced, the consistent refrains of faith and ambition evidence a desire for improvement and change.
Teaching artist Elgin-Bokari Smith, a member of the program for the past four years, hints at the difficulties he often faces going into teaching art to troubled youth. “Being pissed,” he says, “is normal. But art can and should be a medium to get through whatever you’re going through in a positive way.” Providing a voice through the arts for the incarcerated youth, and letting them reach out to all those willing to listen, allows the students to express their emotions openly, making Free Write Jail Arts a safe haven for the publication of thoughts and ideas. Keesling defines this mode of creativity as therapy for the young adults. Tonight, it’s clear that he hopes to disassemble the stigma that comes with being incarcerated: “Everyone marginalizes these kids…but they have just as much ability to give to the world.”