Outside the Box

Opening Closed Doors, an organization founded by artist Benné Rockett to give artists opportunities to address social conditions through their artwork, presents photographs, sculpture, assemblage, and paintings created by young adult offenders in the state Criminal Justice Division's Project Spotlight program in the exhibition "Self-Contained."

Outside the Box

Bits of trash glued onto a tray that's been painted and set on its side. That's all these objects are -- no fancy materials, no elaborate craftsmanship, nothing that announces itself as "Art!" But once you've examined them and read the brief statements by the people who made them, you can feel artistry radiating from these works like waves off hot asphalt. The individuals who assembled these pieces have taken simple objects and invested them with personal meaning, raw emotion. A feather, a bead, a button, a color -- each represents something distinct and vital in their lives -- a bit of history, a loved one, a failure -- and that connection transforms these castoffs into tokens of power, through which we are able to touch another's soul.

The pieces are part of "Self-Contained," an exhibition of photographs, sculpture, assemblage, and paintings that came out of four workshops conducted this past fall and spring by Opening Closed Doors, an organization founded by artist Benné Rockett to give artists opportunities to address social conditions through their artwork. In this case, Rockett and colleagues sought to utilize the arts as a means for strengthening family dynamics by working with young adult offenders in the state Criminal Justice Division's Project Spotlight program.

One hundred offenders were given the option of taking part in the workshops that Opening Closed Doors offered; almost one-third accepted. Those who did had a chance to work with Neil Coleman, owner of Pro-Jex Gallery, and photographer Jessi T. Walsh on taking photographs that focused on the participants' roles within their community and within their families; ceramics artist Mary Heard and conceptual artist Michael Stewart in designing an event to benefit the participants' whole community (their idea was to clean the park across from Mendez Middle School, to create temporary sculpture for the area that spoke to family dynamics, and to host a neighborhood potluck); UT Art Department instructor Cynthia Camlin on painting a 12' x 5' mural depicting the participants' hopes for their children; or Rockett herself on using found objects to create art boxes representing the participants' lives.

If this sounds like bleeding-heart liberalism at its worst, with naïve cultural elitists helping criminals feel good about themselves, think again. The workshop participants had to take a frank look at their own lives and, as noted above, the results were emotionally direct and powerful. They were also encouraged to focus on change, on bettering themselves and their communities. In some cases, their participation inspired them to activism. "While we were creating the assemblage boxes," Rockett says, "we began talking about a child who was killed on Stassney while he was retrieving mail. Participants discussed requesting City Council members to consider relocating mailboxes in the first three blocks of Stassney, east of I-35 to the alley behind those homes. They were attempting to have a voice and to reduce the risk of automobile fatalities to children on this busy street."

More significantly, Rockett's arts program is looking to be steering offenders away from crime. According to Rockett, "Of the 19 offenders who successfully completed the arts program, three (15%) have had probation revoked. Of the 73 clients who did not access the program, 19 have had probation revoked and four have absconded (32%)." It's been said before, but it bears repeating, especially in this context: Art changes lives.

If you want to see for yourself: "Self-Contained" is on display through April 17 at Dove Springs Recreation Center, 5801 Ainez (east on Stassney at I-35, right at Nuckles Crossing, left at Ainez). The exhibition is funded in part by Travis County Community Supervision and Corrections, the Austin Police Department, and Governor's Office, Criminal Justice Division. For more info, call 472-3349.

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