Artist Jonathan Giles, of Worcester, discusses his artwork with Jean Ricci during the unveiling of youth artwork at Framingham Juvenile Court on Thursday. Youths spent months creating artwork that conveys positivity and encouragement to children, youth and families who are entering halls of the court system. Daily News and Wicked Local Photo/Dan Holmes
FRAMINGHAM — Sprawling across two canvasses, the mural on display inside Framingham Juvenile Court on Thursday offers a stark portrait of the choices many children face when they come in contact with the justice system.
On one panel, shadowy figures paced below the barbed wire fence of a detention facility. On the other panel, the red brick facade of one of Framingham State University’s school buildings was nestled on a grassy expanse. A parent and child walk side-by-side on a path leading to large block letters that spelled “Happiness.”
The mural, titled “The Path,” was painted by children at New River Academy, a residential facility in Framingham operated by the Department of Youth Services. The piece was created through a new DYS initiative aimed at brightening the halls of the juvenile court.
Organizers hope the new pieces will not only beautify the building, but also inspire juvenile offenders who find themselves before a judge to make positive choices in the future. Many of the pieces were created by teens currently in DYS custody.
“Clearly there was a need for something to create a more fruitful and inspirational environment in this building,” said state Rep. Carolyn Dykema, who pitched the idea last year, “and to have that hope and inspiration come from the kids in their words, through their art, just seemed like a natural fit.”
Teens at New River Academy were guided by Boston-based Studio Fresh as they created their mural over the course of the last six weeks. Other participants came from The Metrowest Boys and Girls club and TEMPO Young Adult Resource Center, a project of Wayside Youth and Family Support Network affiliated with the Department of Mental Health.
Paintings, drawings and photographs created by youth artists were displayed in the lobby of the juvenile court Thursday as Dykema gathered with members of the Legislature, the judiciary, the Probation Department and DYS to celebrate the initiative. Many pieces bore inspirational messages aimed at keeping other troubled youths on the right path.
“Don’t watch the clock,” read one message on a rectangular painting of a clock face, drawn by a girl named Izabella. “Do what it does. Keep going.”
“Stars can’t shine without darkness,” read another picture by an artist named Alyssa.
The pieces are slated to become part of a new permanent exhibit at the court once renovations are completed later this year.
Dykema, a Holliston Democrat, suggested introducing artwork into the building last year after seeing paper flowers taped to a wall. Judges and employees in the Probation Department enthusiastically supported the idea, she said.
“These kids have so much potential and so much to offer, and I really believe that the juvenile court especially is in a role … to try and help these kids realize their strengths and help them use this experience as a learning experience,” Dykema said.
Rep. Chris Walsh, D-Framingham, helped distribute commendations from the House of Representatives during Thursday’s ceremony. Walsh, an art school graduate, said art is a form of self exploration that becomes a conversation between the creator and the viewer.
DYS Commissioner Peter Forbes agreed, saying adults often struggle to communicate with children in state programs.
“For a lot of kids that are coming through the system, the challenge is really to begin that engagement process and actually get their attention and get their interest,” he said.
Visual art, music and poetry have become increasingly important facets of the DYS model over the last decade as the agency has partnered with community groups and individual artists to help youth express themselves and develop new skills.
“To the extent that a 17-year-old boy is not listening to what you have to say, there’s not going to be any change,” Forbes said. “This is really all about trying to generate an environment where kids can change.”
Dan, a 19-year-old youth consultant for the art project, said it took seeing the inside of a jail cell to convince him to embrace opportunities for rehabilitation. A native of Brockton, Dan was committed to the DYS system at age 14 and tagged as a youthful offender the following year. He decided to turn his life around while incarcerated and recently completed classes to become certified as an EMT.
He shared his life experience with participants in the art project earlier this year, hoping to persuade them to make positive choices in the future.
“At the end of the day, if you really want change, if you really want to do something, you can do it,” he said.
Jim Haddadin can be reached at 617-863-7144 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @JimHaddadin.