Cathedral Arts Project brings art education to incarcerated youths


Once again, there’s new art being created in Downtown Jacksonville. Though the location in question is just on the borderline of The Elbow, the space is permanently closed to the general public. Since January of this year, Cathedral Arts Project (CAP) has been bringing arts education classes to the Duval County Pre-Trial Detention Facility (DCPS) on East Adams Street. CAP is featuring an exhibit of the youths’ work from 5-9 p.m. on Oct. 7 during First Wednesday Art Walk. And while these artists might currently be behind bars, their creative experiences touch on the universal, enriching, and freeing experience of the arts.

“Nationally, these kinds of programs are growing; not only the overall movement of working with juveniles but specifically in working with them in art experiences,” says Marcus Haile, CAP chief development officer. “And I think the research has really come in on the value and benefit of the arts as it connects to education, providing outlets, skills, and coping mechanisms.”

Every Tuesday and Thursday from 4-6 p.m., acclaimed local artist Tony Rodrigues enters one of the facility’s classrooms to teach a small group of youths about visual art. Ranging in age from 12 to 17, they’re juveniles being prosecuted as adults; some have already been adjudicated and are serving a short sentence; others await adjudication. “They’re skeptical at first. ‘What do you want? What’s your angle?’” says Rodrigues, of the students’ initial reaction. “When I get a new group, they’re more expectant that I’ll bail and stop coming. And they’re equally surprised when I come back.”

Each session features a set routine. Rodrigues and the students retrieve their materials from a side office. Rolling out a plastic tube placed on a furniture dolly, acrylic paints and watercolor paper are distributed. Two water buckets are then filled. But before they begin slathering color on paper, Rodrigues gives them lessons on art history and theory. Since there’s no Internet or Wi-Fi connect, before each class he loads up his iPad with images. “We talk about the ’40s and ’50s Abstract Expressionism, with Franz Kline, Helen Frankenthaler, Joan Mitchell, Willem De Kooning, and Robert Motherwell. But not Jackson Pollock and splatter paint,” laughs Rodrigues. “We’re not doing that.”

The students work either individually or in collaboration with Rodrigues. His first lesson is to simply have them move one color around on the paper with a paint knife. They then move to brushes and more colors. Over the course of the sessions, Rodrigues expands into topics like color theory, color psychology, and creating tension in the work. All the while, the students learn about past masters and present possibilities of art. “Somebody will paint something and I’ll point out that it looks like a Paul Klee,” says Rodrigues. “So I’ll load up images and show them his work.” Discernment and cultivating a critical eye is also crucial to the mix. “The art time there is framed around looking at art, making art, and learning to critique art. Finding the differences in art: This Rothko looks chaotic, this one seems calm. You can disagree about things without yelling and screaming.”

Both Rodrigues and Haile cite the receptive response, support, and assistance of DCPS staff and leadership in helping make the program such a success. And the ultimate success rate of introducing the freeing aspects of visual art into a confined population is played out in the students’ responses. “I’m not immediately aware of any scientific, empirical research that’s been done, but I think there are starting to be a lot of anecdotal stories of kids who have gone through this with positive experiences,” says Haile. “And we’re starting to see it, too, with our students participating in it, engaging in it, and definitely decided that this will be part of their life going forward.”

As the weeks go by, Rodrigues sees an increasing interest and sense of accomplishment. “They take pride in what they do. I came in last week and someone had scrawled some graffiti on the back of one of their pieces and they were really bummed out. They definitely care.”

For four hours each week, these youths who are looking at a future of possible release, transfer, or sentence, are given the opportunity to try to shut out the blunt reality of their institutional surroundings and focus toward studying and creating art. Yet Rodrigues acknowledges his greatest rival for their attention is a collection of other, more pressing images.

“There’s a big window in the classroom that looks out toward Maxwell House. Since they don’t even have windows in their dorms, everybody wants to look out the window at girls and cars. So I have to compete with that. That’s my major distraction.”

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