Art Behind Bars | Amelia Hutchison

Today is my nineteenth birthday.  If someone had told me a year ago that tomorrow I would be on my way back to the U.S. to begin my second semester at the Maryland Institute College of Art, I wouldn’t have believed them.  If that same person had told me that I would spend my Fridays leading art workshops with twelve men in the psych ward of the Baltimore City Detention Center, I would have told them they were out of their mind.

Before I share more about my work as a teaching artist I should explain a few things about myself. Originally I come from Victoria, British Columbia and now study Fine Arts and Humanistic Studies in Baltimore. I chose MICA for its Community Arts Partnership Program and for the gritty charisma of Charm City.  I felt if I was going to start exploring art therapy, social justice, and the healing capacity of creative expression, I needed to do that somewhere that clearly needs access to those services.

When a teaching opportunity arose in the pre-trail section of an inner city jail I submitted my application and felt something between terror, wonder and fierce conviction.  It wasn’t until I first walked through the bleak corridors of the institution with my internship partner, Mildred, that I began to consider that this place had the power to resurrect the traumas of my childhood. Having lost my father to violent crime at age four, I was placed in painting classes. My ideas about justice, retribution, crime, creativity, forgiveness and art are tangled into some very complex personal philosophies.  I suppose it makes perfect sense that my art would take me to jail.

To my delight, my first semester as an art teacher was met with eager students, supportive mentors and the realization that art is the most humanizing tool we have access to. So far our class has explored acrylic paint, pastel, watercolors, journal making and creative writing. I have been forced to confront my own ideas of what it means to be guilty, marginalized, segregated or put away.

I will never condone the crimes that brought my students to jail, but I feel that all too often, the minute someone breaks the law, our society feels a right to deny them their humanity.  It is as if by incarcerating someone we are no longer obligated to worry about his or her well-being. We think it’s enough to warehouse them. We give little thought to what it’s going to take to reverse the cycle that put them there, or make a practical plan for their healthy reintegration into society.

Perhaps it is because nineteen is the legal age in Canada that I have found myself reflecting on what it means to be an adult in community. But more so, what it means to take responsibility and contribute to a community that is faced with issues of segregation and poverty; where incarceration is an all-too-common reality. The only way I know how to contribute is with art. Perhaps that is enough.

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