When Maya Keating is in the gymnasium on the Macon Youth Development Center (YDC) campus in Macon, Ga., she always tries her best to keep wayward balls from crashing into the colorful mural emblazoned across a large wall. She hopes to keep the display -– a vibrant array of red, blue, yellow and green acrylic paint -– unscathed for as long as possible. No chipping, is her objective, thank you very much.
“I’m always telling people, ‘watch where you kick the ball,’” quipped Keating, 19. “I don’t want it to get messed up. I’m really proud of it because I never thought we could do anything like that.”
Lorena Padron can relate.
“I don’t like to play ball, so I’m kind of like the security guard watching over it in the gym,” said Padron, 18. “Every time I look at it, it brings back good memories.”
The mural is so special to them because they were among 16 teenage girls in the Macon YDC, who worked alongside internationally acclaimed artist Emanuel Martinez to paint the massive 90-by-20-foot work. It was unveiled with great fanfare in March at a Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) hosted ceremony.
“It shows a young lady progressing in her life, from looking gloomy and being incarcerated to smiling and finishing school and becoming successful in life,” explained Keating, of the piece dubbed “Visualize Your Potential.”
The mural, is more than just a cool painting to Padron as well. In many ways she feels it symbolizes her future and the potential she has to turn her own life around.
“When I look at it, I put myself in the mural and pretend that I am the girl painted on the wall,” said Padron, who aspires to attend the Art Institute of Atlanta upon her release. “This experience painting the mural has inspired me to get out of here and to go out into the city and be what I want to be.”
The mural project was sponsored by The Art for Kids Emanuel Project, a new effort launched this year as part of Colorado-based Art for Kids, a non-profit that provides free art supplies to children in homeless shelters, juvenile detention centers as well as schools and community centers in low-income areas. Louisa Jornayvaz founded the organization six years ago, but last year she tapped Martinez, her mentor and former art instructor, to lead a mural program at juvenile detention centers across the country.
Learn more about the Project in this promotional video:
Working with troubled juveniles might seem an unlikely cause for Martinez, a renowned painter, sculptor and muralist with three works of art in the permanent collection of the Museum of American Art at the Smithsonian. Known as one of the premier Latino artists of our time, he launched his career working with Cesar Chavez and other prominent leaders during the 1960s. Before his artistic accolades, however, in the early 60s he too was incarcerated as a teen. He was not allowed to have art supplies in the Colorado detention center where he’d served most of his time, so he improvised by discreetly collecting matchsticks. He used the charcoal tips to draw on paper towels until a nurse at the facility helped him get real supplies. The experience inspired him to pursue art full time.
“That’s why it’s so important for me to reach out to these young people in this way, because someone did that for me,” said Martinez, in between breaks while working on another mural at a detention facility in Tennessee. “This population of young people is pretty much forgotten. You only hear about them on TV when they’re caught doing something wrong. This program allows them to get attention for something positive; that helps build up their self-esteem.”
Macon YDC Director Debbie Blasingame said she’s noticed a positive change in the students since Martinez worked with them.
“I can’t really give exact numbers, but it seems like there have been fewer [behavioral] incidents with them since they did the mural,” she said. “They just seem a lot calmer and more focused. When they were painting they had the music going; that mixed with the paint colors was really soothing to them. It was great just seeing them be so excited about the project.”
Participant Ebony Curry, a 16-year-old mother to a five-month old, said the experience inspired her to maximize her remaining 10 months.
“It actually made me more determined to get my diploma instead of a GED,” said Curry, who plans to become a nurse. “I want to make my time in here count. I aspire to be like the girl in the mural, progressing to a higher level in life. Now I want to do what I have to do when I get out, to support my family.”
Padron and Keating said they really appreciated the patient and supportive attitude Martinez shared with them. They both agree that the highlight of the experience, however, was the time in the middle of painting one day when they all let loose and taught Martinez some new dance steps.
“He’s cool and down to earth,” added Curry. “He’s not an uptight artist, he likes to have fun. He doesn’t get mad if you mess up either.”
The art itself may be a motivator for the teens, but Blasingame insists that Martinez is a key component of the program’s success.
“He has an awesome personality; he’s very patient,” added Blasingame. “He’s exactly the kind of person you’d want teaching you art.”
Georgia DJJ has been involved with the Art for Kids project since 2008, when then Sumter YDC teacher Randy Minnick contacted the organization to receive art supplies for his students. Minnick now heads program development for the Emanuel Project.
Minnick said the kids and their work tend to evolve after they receive consistent art instruction.
“Their work typically starts out very dark and gothic; a lot of skulls and and gang symbols,” he said. “Then they tend to get more hopeful and start drawing more images of jail doors and handcuffs opening. Eventually you start seeing more images of the sun in the horizon and hands holding roses, which is indicative of the fact that they’re beginning to feel more hopeful. From there they do a lot more portraits, buildings, sports team mascots and things the general public like to see.”
The Macon YDC mural is the second Emanuel Project effort in a Georgia YDC. Martinez worked with students at the Muscogee YDC in January.
Martinez has also completed six smaller murals in Colorado. By year’s end, he hopes to complete at least a dozen across the country, including Tennessee, Kentucky and possibly Alabama.
“Education is a primary element in all of my murals; I try to depict the choices they have in life,” added Martinez. “I try to let them know that through education they have a lot of positive choices. My goal is to get them on the road to success and back into society.”