Art exhibition features work of incarcerated youth

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The third annual art show put on by the Free Write Jail Arts & Literacy Program opens today at 6 p.m.

“The Artists Will Not Be Present” features artwork created by youth incarcerated in the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center.

Hosted by the Chicago Art Department, 1932 S. Halsted St., the exhibit will display graphic illustrations, creative writing, visual art, music and spoken word poetry.

Ryan Keesling, program director for Free Write, said the students are excited they’re building skills and have an audience for their stories.

“It’s very satisfying to know they have a venue for their stories,” Keesling said.

He said although the program doesn’t know how many of the artists in this year’s show come from Austin, he notes that youth from the West and South sides are disproportionately affected by the criminal justice system and there’s a higher concentrations of social economically disadvantaged people from those parts of the city.

Keesling said he and fellow Free Write staff have worked with more than 150 students between 14 and 17 during this past school year.

Mathilda de Dios, associate director of Free Write who also works with the Austin Coalition for Youth Justice, said it’s tremendous the incarcerated youth have the opportunity to see the fruits of their labor on display – though it’s unfortunate – and bittersweet – they can’t be present.

“It really just helps them speak for themselves and be authors of their own stories,” she said.

Chelsea Ross, a Chicago Art Department teaching artist and the exhibit curator, said the exhibit is an opportunity for two worlds of people to connect that wouldn’t normally interact.

“The students through their work get to connect to a world of people that they otherwise wouldn’t get to and vice versa, the people get to connect with a pretty marginalized population,” Ross said.

Ross, who’s been an artist with the Chicago Art Department the last two years, helped curate the first art show in 2011.

She said each year the show evolves a little bit; this year there’s a lot of digital graphic work, and it’s been a challenge to come up with a method to present the work in a new, engaging way.

Ross said the content deals with everything from the personal and political to funny and abstract;  this year the student work will be presented with custom-made light boxes.

Keesling said the exhibit will be open for about three weeks, and once the show ends, Free Write tries to have the work sent to the youths’ home so they have it as part of their portfolio.

“It’s sort of an account for the time they spent no matter how long they were locked up,” Keesling said. “It shows they were productive, developed a skill and cultivated a talent.”

The Artists Will Not Be Present opening will be at the Chicago Art Department from 6 to 10 p.m. Friday, July 11. The exhibit can be viewed by appointment through July 31.

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