Art To the People

Creating murals and art spaces. Performing dance and theater. Celebrating the natural world. These stories tell of ordinary people who are finding their voices, restoring communities, and transforming lives.

Asked by muralist Xavier Cortada to write what he wanted printed on the back of his prison jumpsuit, one boy wrote, “Don't throw me away.” But the criminal justice system has done just that, sending him and thousands of other juveniles straight into adult prison.

In adult prisons, juveniles are much more likely to be raped, beaten, or attacked with weapons, and much more likely to commit suicide. Studies have also shown that juveniles sent to adult prisons are more likely to commit crimes once released.

One day when Cortada was visiting the county jail to work with teens, a teenager jailed for a first-time drug offense hanged himself with his bedsheet. That day Cortada went home, and in a tearful rage, began painting the central panel of Convictim, his latest mural.

Cortada, a Cuban-born Miami artist and lawyer, has been working on collaborative art with kids locked in Florida's adult prisons. Florida leads the nation in the number of teens sent to adult jails. Across the nation, as many as 3500 juveniles are sent to adult jails each day.

Cortada has worked on many community art projects, including a murals project for public
housing and a collaborative mural with teens from Miami's Little Havana. Cortada was drawn into using art for social change after working with children in apartheid-era Soweto, South Africa. He has painted murals about AIDS, poverty, racism, domestic violence, and other social ills. His mural “Convictim” was created with the participation of teenagers incarcerated at Turner Guilford Knight Corrections Facility. After an exhibit at Miami's Casa Grande Cultural Center that includes photographs of jailed teens, it will be displayed in the Miami-Dade County Public Defender's Office.

For more information on Xavier Cortada's work, visit his website at

restitution, by Carolyn McConnell

Harvey Green was executed in North Carolina in 1999. But his artwork lives and is helping to make restitution for his and other death row inmates' crimes. Restitution, Inc. sells the artwork of inmates like Green and distributes the proceeds to surviving victims and charitable organizations such as Doctors Without Borders and the Shriners' Burns Hospitals of Galveston, Texas. Green's Mother and Child is shown above.

The aim is not only to help inmates make restitution, but to help them to heal themselves, says Restitution's executive director, Betsy Wolfendon. Restitution's website,, (editors note: this website was not accessible 1/23/03) also contains apologies by the inmates for their crimes and statements of forgiveness from victims.

community film , by Connie Kim

New video technology is making it possible for a new generation of filmmakers to be part of a medium that had once been the exclusive territory of big studios and starving independent artists. One community to celebrate the creativity and quirkiness of the local crop of talent is Bainbridge Island, a small island community located across the Puget Sound from Seattle (and home of YES! magazine).
Celluloid Bainbridge's fourth annual festival included 25 films that were either shot on Bainbridge Island or filmed by one of its denizens.

Community film festivals are unlike ordinary movie-viewing experiences. For one, people talk a lot more during the screenings, observes Kathleen Thorne, program director of the Bainbridge Island Arts and
Humanities Council, which spearheaded Celluloid. And a community film festival highlights what is unique about a community. She says, “You get these Bainbridge moments”—moments that help a community develop a shared sense of identity.

The event was not difficult to bring together, Thorne says. Local businesses and individuals donated time, space, and anything else that was needed. The cost of the auditorium, projector, word-of-mouth advertising, volunteer screening committee, and technical support all amounted to less than $600.
Filmmakers, ranging from young students with 10-minute camcorder clips to professional Hollywood filmakers (there are a few bigwigs on the island) with feature-length 35-millimeter films, donated their submissions.

Film festivals like Celluloid, says Thorne, “are a reminder that no matter how many distributors, agents, or other film festivals turn down your no-budget, guerrilla-crew-filmed, heart-felt masterpiece, your hometown fans will want to see it.”

theater of liberation, by Pam Chang

Theater of the Oppressed, Theater for Social Change, Theater of Liberation, and Theater for Living are all names for dramatic techniques that draw ordinary people to express, explore, and find solutions to the social problems central to their lives. Originally developed by theater artist, author, teacher, and activist Augusto Boal, working with Brazilian workers and peasants, Theater of the Oppressed is now performed worldwide by workshop audiences (“spect–actors”) for problem solving, community building, therapy, conflict resolution, social and political activism, and even to incorporate citizen feedback in legislation.

Methods include: games in which power dynamics are safely explored; exercises where players form tableaux representing their stories, struggles, feelings, ideas, and dreams; and stop-action dramas in which spect-actors are inserted to try out an alternative action in a basic story line. The techniques require players to critically analyze scenes and creatively embody responses.

In the above picture, teenagers portray their experiences as refugees within their own country in an April 1998 workshop in Azerbaijan. Of a group of shy adult Azeri women, facilitator Marc Weinblatt writes: “Little by little, they gave themselves permission to be loud, to be different, to let themselves be heard. . . Images appeared: guns pointing, grieving over dead relatives, covering eyes, waiting in bread lines, praying to Allah, arms raised in solidarity. ... Everyone had the same story. It was all very simple, very clear, and very difficult.”

For more information, contact the Mandala Center, 1221 49th St., Port Townsend, WA 98368, 360/344-3435,

art + community, by Kelly Quirke

CELLspace is an organic hub for melding art and community in San Francisco's Mission district. Located in a 10,000-square-foot warehouse, CELLspace is a shared work space for a wide range of artistic disciplines. The shared space allows artists to swap equipment, tools, and ideas.

Designed to operate like a cell in nature, everyone is welcome to participate, not only in the artistic and community outreach operations, but in the governance of the group as well. The Collectively Explorative Learning Labs offer classes and workshops, and make space available for community activities and individual projects.

“Imagine a community coming together for the hands-on creation of a center for art and local activities,” says Jonathan Youtt, one of those who founded CELLspace in 1996. “Their creativity, plus techniques learned of group process and decision-making, could then be applied to revived community involvement, spawning things like town hall meetings and local forums for community engagement.”
For more information, and to learn about their planned “How to Create Community Arts Space” handbook, go to

youth speaks , by Kelly Quirke

In 1996 James Kass was discouraged by the lack of diversity in the graduate creative writing program at San Francisco State University. He decided to offer free creative writing workshops to teens in San Francisco high schools. From this endeavor, Youth Speaks was born.

With the motto “Because the next generation can speak for itself,” Youth Speaks inspires teens to develop their own voice and discover paths to creative self-expression. Incorporating collaborative workshops, educational mentoring, and cooperative learning with their innovative Teen Poetry Slams, Youth Speaks has helped thousands of mostly urban youth to embrace hope and develop their own culture by practicing the art of the written and spoken word.

“For today's youth, poetry and the spoken word are perfect avenues to creativity and expression, especially if you've never considered yourself an artist or performer,” says Kass. “You don't need paint and canvas, a musical instrument or any tools other than pen and paper. We invite youth to experience their own unique perceptions, and as they bring their experience to words we encourage and validate it.”

For more, including information on in- and after-school programs, youth development, teacher training and instituting creative writing programs, see

species procession, by Connie Kim

Every year on or around Earth Day, 4,000 participants and 30,000 onlookers of all ages display their appreciation for nature in a sea of celebration. The Procession of the Species flows through the streets of Olympia, Washington, incorporating art, music, and dance into an event that allows people to artistically embody wild species.

Created by Earthbound Productions, a community-based nonprofit, the Procession first began as
a response to an attack on the Endangered Species Act in 1994.

Preparation for the procession begins seven weeks before the event itself, with workshops such as “Adventurous Avian Headdresses” and “Ta Ke Ti Na Rhythm Experience” that teach participants how to create costumes, banners, and puppets. Workshops in familiar and exotic musical instruments and dances prepare people for the massive street performance. It's not unusual to see a butterfly-winged adult playing African drums while dancing the Samba.

Since its inception eight years ago, the number attending has grown from a few hundred to over a quarter of the city's population. Its success and popularity have prompted 14 other US cities to adopt their own processions, and requests for information have come in from as far away as Ploiesti, Romania.

For more information on how to start your own Procession, see Earthbound's website at

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