Bridges Juvenile Detention Center is a secure facility located in the Hunts Point section of the Bronx, surrounded by a strip of used auto-parts stores and wholesale supply outlets. It houses both boys and girls, although the two groups are kept at a far remove from one another, and it has all of the familiar trappings of your standard-issue television or film depiction of prison: guards, jumpsuits, concrete, barbed wire, and barred windows. But it also has an art room. And a library. And hallways full of drawings and paintings and poetry.
Passages Academy is the New York City Department of Education program that serves the city’s incarcerated and detained youth between the ages of 11 and 16. Working in seven detention sites (three secure, four non-secure), the Passages staff functions as the incarcerated teens’ only source of formal education during their time in jail. In my role as MoMA’s Community Outreach Consultant, I’ve been traveling to these centers on a regular basis over the past few years, working with the educators and administrators to find new ways of integrating modern art into their preexisting curricula. Building our classes around themes such as identity, community, and self-expression, the students and I explore different periods of art history and learn different art-making techniques. Most importantly, we create a space where discussions of emotions and feelings are no longer prohibited by the general consensus of the detention center’s population. By giving the students artwork to focus on, rather than making the conversation about themselves, we’ve found that they become much more likely to delve into emotional and personal issues. By following up these conversations with art-making workshops, we’ve seen these new ideas begin to manifest themselves in expressive (rather than destructive) ways.
At Bridges, Isabel Rosado has been teaching art to the students of Passages Academy for the past nine years. Her classroom is covered from floor to ceiling with colorful reproductions of modern and contemporary art, from Paul Cézanne to Salvador Dalì to the TATS graffiti crew, and her shelves are full of books about Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Jackson Pollock. I sat down with her at MoMA last week and asked her a few questions about her strategies for teaching art within the Juvenile Justice System, the link between her students’ inner emotions and their outer expressions, and what a Piet Mondrian painting looks like from inside a jail cell.
Special thanks to Jessica Fenster-Sparber for all of her invaluable assistance throughout this partnership.