Art class director Jan Revill helps a student inmate at the Lucas County Juvenile Detention Center with an art project. Five days a week, the young inmates spend an hour in the class.
THE BLADE/AMY E. VOIGT
The plan on Monday was to go home on Tuesday.
“I don’t even know why I’m doing this, bro,” a 17-year-old Sur-13 gang member said to the boy sitting across the table. “I'm leaving tomorrow.”
“Ain’t nothing promised,” said the other boy, 16, a member of the Geer Gang Crips.
The two, inmates at the Lucas County Juvenile Detention Center, continued to mix their bowls of shredded paper and water, making a paste that looked like Greek yogurt and felt like toothpaste.
Using plastic green sticks with a wide, flat edge, the 10 teenagers in Jan Revill's art class use the white goop to fill in the outlines of either a bird or lizard for a Cinco de Mayo-inspired project.
Five days a week, 52 weeks a year, every child — and the occasional “adult” — who is held in the county's juvenile lock-up facility, goes to an hourlong art class under the direction of Ms. Revill — who, in class, is known as Ms. Jan.
PHOTO GALLERY: Lucas County juvenile inmates' art
Every new week begins a new art project that is coupled with another learning component, incorporating current events, history, science, and math. It's “art integration,” a curriculum crafted by Ms. Revill and Joe Szafarowicz, a retired teacher who works with Ms. Revill.
“The people in here are some of the toughest guys involved in some of the most severe crimes,” Mr. Szafarowicz said. “What that has given rise to is our desire to show the world out there how good they are in here. We have tough customers, but they are the most workable, compliant, dedicated, interested folks you've ever met.”
Soon, the artwork that's created in the classes will be on display at the Lucas County Juvenile Justice Center in the lobby and on the second floor, where the courtrooms are. The plan is to eventually sell the artwork, pooling earnings into a communal fund that would benefit other organizations.
“If we as the community, all of us, can create some small opportunities for these kids to let them feel valuable and make them feel part of our community, then we are really creating opportunities that will result in lowering our crime rate and creating safe communities,” said Judge Denise Navarre-Cubbon.
On Tuesday, the Sur-13 gang member was still in lock-up.
He's there this time, he says, because he stabbed someone who broke into his home. The teen is a fixture in juvenile detention. He's been in and out 52 times, first when he was 8 years old.
In art class, he's just a kid. The best artist in the room, he brags.
“Look at this creative artwork, bro,” he said. “Crown me now, bro.”
When he asked a classmate, a 19-year-old murder suspect who others say is the most talented artist in class, who is the best, the 19 year old lets the younger teen take the honor.
Because the students are allowed to talk in art class, they're open and engaged with their teachers, oftentimes sharing their personal histories.
“There are so many sad stories,” said Mr. Szafarowicz, who with Ms. Revill has worked for nearly a decade in the detention center. More than once, on the eve of their release, a youth has told Ms. Revill or Mr. Szafarowicz they planned to act out in court in order to get a few more days in detention so they could finish a project.
“There's nothing out there for me anyway,” Mr. Szafarowicz has been told.
For some of the teens, the art class is more than a mandatory lesson: It's an escape.
“It's cool, it keeps me from thinking about this place for real,” said a 17-year-old boy from Toledo's east side. For that teen, it's an outlet. A chance to not think much about anything. A welcome change.
The teen was, on Feb. 2, a passenger in Michael Macklin, Jr.'s vehicle when the 20-year-old was shot in his neck and shoulder at Walden and Greenwood avenues. He later died at Mercy St. Vincent Medical Center.
“I be having dreams every night,” the boy said, dipping a thin paintbrush into a pool of neon-pink paint for his lizard.
"It's like a whole different world in here. I don't think about anything on the outside. I think about my family a lot, though," he said.
Being in a class they like doesn't make them perfect angels. One day last week, an 18-year-old student was forced into a timeout — standing facing a wall — for swearing.
When the artwork goes up and is priced to sell, Mr. Szafarowicz hopes that the people who are in and out of the downtown building will remember that, although the youths are still accused of crimes — sometimes gruesome ones— they are still children.
“Let's let the attorneys, judges, law enforcement, the adults who come in and out of here see the work and say, 'Whoa, they did that?', ” he said. “Maybe they'll think twice about these kids.”
Mr. Szafarowicz said the center recently purchased a kiln so the students could learn about pottery and ceramics. Those items, he said, would be exhibited around town and sent to celebrities across the country to “show the world out there that we can work with these folks. There's talent here.”
The art room, Unit H on the third floor of the facility, is covered in work from past inmates. Pieces of paper with drawings and paintings are taped to doors that lead to rooms once used as holding cells.
In there, they talk about hope.
One of the boys, a 16-year-old Manor Boy, found out his girlfriend is about five weeks pregnant. He hopes it's a boy. He also hopes that the job application his probation officer helped him fill out will land him a job — a real one — so he can give up the hustle and spoil that baby rotten.
While they paint and sculpt, they talk about their futures — tomorrows that don't put them behind bars.
"We still got a chance. A big chance," said the 17-year-old East Toledo boy.
The 16-year-old Geer Gang member, who is charged with tampering with evidence, agreed.
"When I get out of here, I'm not about to be doing the same stuff," he said. "I'm not gonna even be around the same people. I'm moving in with my grandma. She's my only positive influence."
That would be a masterpiece.