Paint Against Prison
UTSA students mentor at-risk youths through art project
It’s a gray November morning on the edge of downtown San Antonio with temperatures lingering around 30 degrees. The cool breeze keeps finding its way inside the makeshift art studio on San Pedro Avenue, creeping in under the heavy metal entry door. The atmosphere in this former warehouse, however, is anything but cold. A group of teenagers, UTSA students and professionals from the community is getting ready to add the finishing touches to an impressive 20-by-8-foot mural. While they are unpacking paintbrushes, stirring wheat paste and bantering with one another, a 16-year-old starts to beatbox, producing drum sounds with his mouth. Quiet at first, his volume rises until his are the only sounds left in the room. He stops abruptly, realizing that all eyes are set on him, pulls up his pants and smiles self-consciously. “That’s amazing. How do you do that?” someone asks.
Not all of the youths are here by choice, despite the setting suggesting otherwise. Some are first-time class-C misdemeanor and status offenders at risk of taking recurring roles in the juvenile justice system. Coming here on Saturdays is counting toward reducing their court-ordered community service hours. Others are part of a Job Corps program designed to provide them with skills they need to succeed in life.
“This is not just about painting,” says Robert Ambrosino, senior lecturer in the UTSA Department of Social Work. “Many of these youths lack a positive role model in their life. As we paint together, we engage them in informal conversations about the importance of staying in school, obeying rules at home and hanging on to their hopes and dreams.” Ambrosino is joined in this pedagogical effort by UTSA graduate students from his Advanced Communities class, program staff from two local agencies (P.E.A.C.E. Initiative and Chrysalis Ministries) and an accomplished artist with deep roots in the San Antonio community.
It started out with five nondescript plywood panels and the task to capture traumatic life experiences on them using permanent markers. At the end of the day, rather abstract themes such as “fear” or “low self-esteem” had been scribbled next to concrete personal experiences such as drug abuse, sexual assault, and even the witnessing of a murder.
Over the course of several Saturdays, the dark words were covered with bright, colorful acrylic paint. Cut-out paper symbols depicting positive messages were then glued and layers of wheat paste were applied to add dimension. Finally, several coats of a clear sealant were brushed on to make the mural weather-resistant.
A couple of weeks later, despite the threat of freezing rain, well over 100 individuals from the community gathered at the UTSA Downtown Campus for an indoor unveiling of the mural. Some of the youths brought family members to the occasion, others came alone. Three guest speakers gave inspiring speeches about their own struggles in life, growing up under challenging circumstances not unlike those the young artists are facing. They describe how, with the supportive guidance of an adult role model, they completed high school, attended college and established themselves as successful business people and respected community members. Some of the teenagers share how the art project has changed their lives, earning them a well-deserved round of applause from the audience.
"At first, many of the kids weren't really into it. But that changed a lot, up to the point where they would go ahead and ta ke the lead during the painting process."
- Lynsey Tucker
The mural, now permanently installed on an exterior wall of the Chrysalis Ministries building at 503 San Pedro Ave., has undergone quite a butterfly-like metamorphosis from unremarkable plywood panels to a luscious, eye-popping piece of art. While it is difficult to predict what the future holds for the participating youths, the collaborative effort of this heterogeneous group appeared to have had a tangible impact
UTSA social work graduate student Lynsey Tucker says, “At first, many of the kids weren’t really into it. But, that changed a lot, up to a point where they would go ahead and take the lead during the painting process. They also really opened up to us and shared their fears and worries about growing up, and their hopes and dreams for the future. We mentored them subtly, trying to reduce negative feelings and encourage them to believe in themselves.”
Elijah, 16, the beatboxer, is one of the teenagers whose opinion of the mural project went from “nah, not interested” to “actually, it’s a whole lot better than picking up trash,” as he recalls.
Although he had never touched a crayon, colored pencil or paintbrush in his entire life, Elijah enjoyed the new experience and the visible change he was capable of creating with his own hands. In fact, he enjoyed it so much that now as the mural project is finished he’s looking into similar art-related ways to work off his remaining community service hours.