Pre-Trial Expressionism: Sentenced To Art

EVENT: County Missives
WHERE: Lufrano Intercultural Gallery, University of North Florida Student Union
WHEN: March 30 through June 30

Artist Tony Rodrigues has been teaching art to juvenile inmates since the late 1990s. Lately, he’s noticed a major change in his classroom. He’s had a core group of the same eight students for the past several months. Consistency is scarce in a pre-trial detention facility, especially when teaching visual art.

Tony Rodrigues, Photo by Francesco Salomoni

“To have the same group together through all the disciplinary actions, lockdown dorms, aging out of the program, resolved cases, transfers to different prisons—it’s very rare,” says Rodrigues. He’s taken advantage of this surge of steadiness by curating an exhibit that runs through the end of June at the University of North Florida’s Lufrano Intercultural Gallery. Rodrigues joined forces with his class to title the show County Missives.

Rodrigues’ pre-adjudication students are all young males between the ages of 12 and 17, charged as adults. His classroom is just feet away from the inmates’ dorms. The program is entering its third year under the direction of the Cathedral Arts Project through support from private funding and grants awarded by the National Endowment for the Arts.

Photo by Francesco Salomoni

“Abstract expressionism is easier as an icebreaker. It allows us to concentrate on color theory, color psychology, mark making. Creating tension.”

A classroom in a detention facility presents its challenges, mostly in terms of uniformity. Recurrently, a student will begin a painting and won’t be able to complete it in later classes. “A student may be put in a lockdown dorm, and others will finish it for him,” says Rodrigues. “Or they age out of the program—when they turn 18, they’re placed in adult population.”

For these reasons, many student works in County Missives are collaborative, directed by Rodrigues. He teaches abstract expressionism to his students to avoid the pressures of representational art. As an instructor, he embraces the contemporary movement’s approachability.

Photo by Francesco Salomoni

“Abstract expressionism is easier as an icebreaker,” says Rodrigues. “It allows us to concentrate on color theory, color psychology, mark making. Creating tension.” He prepares slideshows of notable paintings on his iPad, which cannot gain internet access in the classroom and had to receive special clearance by detention center security ahead of time. Mostly, he shows ‘40s and ‘50s abstract painters like Joan Mitchell, Helen Frankenthaler, Robert Motherwell, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, and Franz Kline. Rodrigues will sometimes display works of significance while the students are painting together.

An abstract painter who has gained popularity in Rodrigues’ class is Gerhard Richter, famous for taking a squeegee to his canvases. The students have experimented with the squeegee as a painting tool to emulate Richter’s style in their own work. Where applicable, many paintings in County Missives include a note on the extended wall text to highlight a work or artist of influence. Rodrigues wants viewers to know that his students reference the works of influential painters in their own work with intention.

Teaching in the detention facility, Rodrigues is limited by the painting materials he can use. Oil paints are prohibited due to ventilation issues and flammability. A new pedagogical challenge surfaces here—Rodrigues must choose artistic references based on specific mediums. He shows artists to his students who work with heavy-bodied acrylic paints similar to those they are using in class. Artists like Jackson Pollock who utilize the paint-splattering technique are commonly excluded from the curriculum. “I don’t want the students slinging paint onto each other,” says Rodrigues. “That would be like a food fight.”

In the case of abstract expressionism, Rodrigues says, “The painting is often the artifact of the action as much as it’s an object of art.” He encourages his students to paint in a stream-of-consciousness style, as the expressionist movement promotes, but always stresses titles and larger concepts. He scatters thesauruses throughout his classroom in an effort to get students thinking beyond the literal. As far as the artistic practice goes, Rodrigues passes down his own process as a painter to his students. They engage with several of their own paintings at once in various stages—a painting in progress, a newer painting. Frequently, Rodrigues will stop students in the midst of working to conduct critiques.


“It’s a gumbo,” says Rodrigues of his teaching methods. But keeping students busy with different stages of work proves to maintain a core, consistent group. He admits, though, that the dynamics of the pre-trial facility classroom are more challenging than those of a traditional classroom. Since his students are housed together in the same dorm outside of the classroom, “They’re together all the time.”

The equilibrium of the classroom is more demanding for Rodrigues to maintain. In many cases, the students are involved with opposing gangs outside of the facility’s walls. When a new inmate enters the dorms, it can throw off the balance Rodrigues achieved with his students the week before. The most evident balancing act Rodrigues faces in his work as an educator is his own point of view of his students. “They’re in there because they’ve been charged with serious crimes. It’s not my intent to downplay any of that,” he says. “But I know them as individuals, and they’re still children.”

Hosted by the Cathedral Arts Project, County Missives runs at the UNF Lufrano Intercultural Gallery through June 30. Entry to the gallery is free, but guests must pay for parking. For more info, visit

About Hurley Winkler