Working with Teens at Dane County Juvenile Detention Center

“Look Within”

Where this mural sits in the building, being the last and first thing the teens see before and after court, I wanted to bring a peaceful and powerful image -  a reminder to reflect and find peace and clarity within. The central faces are split down the middle and show regardless of who you are (gender, race, background), change and a desire to create a better life for yourself begin with you. First get to know and respect yourself and positivity can be shown to and shared with others. The surrounding mandala image was chosen because of their representation of inner peace throughout the ages. Waves at the center stand for the ripple effect in the power in being authentic with yourself, radiating to those around you.

I was invited to paint a mural with teens at the Juvenile Detention Center in Madison, Wisconsin. Most of the youth there are awaiting their court date, so it can be a pretty intense atmosphere, which is why the Making Justice Program started connecting artists with teens to brighten the space. I was the fourth one to paint their walls and wanted to bring something crisp, bold and powerful.

The space I was given is a locked room between the gym and main desk, visible when you walk through the front doors. Most importantly, it faces the door to and from court. It will be the first thing they see before they leave and when they return from their hearing. This is why I chose to create a powerful image using peaceful tones with a splash of color.

I worked on the mural throughout spring break, with the teen residents who wanted to help taking shifts. About 10 assisted and the final day they moved onto canvas while I touched up details. Being there and connecting with them was a learning experience for all of us, talking about everything from new vs. old school rap, relationships, where we grew up, even life and death. It gave me a chance to bond with a group I normally wouldn’t outside those walls. Any judgement washed away each time we picked up the brushes next to each other, sometimes in silence, other times having very meaningful conversations. Opening yourself to experiences and people is the only way to learn and grow, and I left with more knowledge about their lives, the system and how I can make a difference. In turn, showing them techniques on how to paint while answering their questions and sharing, I know they walked away with something, too.  It was a great feeling to bring life to an otherwise beige wall under florescent lights, but also bring the message to those I worked with, and those passing through to find strength within themselves by discovering who they really are.  

A HUGE thank you to the staff of Dane County Juvenile Detention Center, Jesse Vieau and the staff of Teen Bubbler at the Madison Public Library and their partners for coordinating the Making Justice Program. More cities need to implement community projects like this!

A few comments after we finished:
“This is BEAUTIFUL” - teen resident age 15 
“This mural’s bussin’ - teen resident 16  
“I SHOULDA painted!” - teen resident (who didn’t paint) 
“Wow, this is dope!” - staff member
“Powerful image” - staff member

…and many more.