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In Seattle, Child Prisoners Find Outlet for Art

A roll of barbed wire hangs on the wall of a gallery in the Seattle Children's Museum. "It's not the first time," comments a member of the installation staff. "We put up barbed wire for a Holocaust exhibit several years ago." Yet the current exhibition doesn't commemorate an evil from the past. Instead it represents the fears, doubts, anger, and hope of young people in prison today.

"We're Your Future Too" is the third exhibition in a series called "A Changed World." Produced by the Experimental Gallery, it is a unique program that offers visual-arts, video, music, drama, and creative-writing classes to youth offenders in Washington's six juvenile detention centers.

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The current exhibition traveled to several Seattle high schools before landing at the Children's Museum. There, a series of large black-and-white photographs grimly details the routine of life behind bars. On another wall, the young artists have created a series of poignantly revealing self-portraits: The faces are painted a uniform "flesh" tone over photographs so that eyes, mouths, and other physical details are only marginally visible.

One senses that these young people reveal only very limited, often deceptive, aspects of themselves. But it's clear that they possess talent. Susan Warner, executive director of the Experimental Gallery says, "We're locking up our best artists." Then she adds, "They have a lot of time to reflect on their work."

The Experimental Gallery began six years ago. Robert Sotelo, an art instructor at the Maple Lane School juvenile detention facility, told his students if they did good work, he'd find a place to exhibit it. "This was a great motivation for the kids," explains Mr. Sotelo. Looking for exhibition space, he contacted the Washington State Historical Society in Olympia, where Ms. Warner was its curator.

Warner quickly became more interested in the art produced by young inmates than historical artifacts. With a small grant, she and Sotelo started annual exhibitions. They also helped construct a permanent gallery space at Maple Lane School for displaying inmate work. (The exhibition "A Changed World," which was on display at the Children's Museum last year, is now installed at the Maple Lane gallery.)

Warner currently works full time for the Experimental Gallery out of an office at the Children's Museum. "Having the public view their work is very positive," she says. "Most of these young people feel invisible or think others see them only as criminals."

A good example is Joe, a handsome bright teenager from a working-class Seattle neighborhood who stole cars and caused other trouble until he was sent to Maple Lane. There he gained a new outlet for his energy by learning silk-screening, in which he creates comic characters printed on T-shirts. "Joe had no idea he could draw," explains Sotelo. "Now he's considering a career in graphic arts."

Sotelo also introduces Tuan, a Vietnamese teen, convicted of kidnapping and robbery, who helped build a statue of Buddha. "When you take all the negatives out of these kids' lives," explains Sotelo, "they often start drawing on positives from their culture."

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Although the program is not expensive (about $200,000 annually) compared with most corrections costs, the budget must be justified by results. An independent evaluation by the University of Washington in Seattle has been comparing inmates involved in the Experimental Gallery program with those who aren't. Two indicators have proven positive: higher self-esteem and increased academic achievement.

The third and possibly most important is the rate of recidivism. Overall, recidivism for delinquents is 80 percent; for those in the Experimental Gallery it is 50 percent.

Another reason for this powerful exhibition is its audience. For a brief moment, museumgoers share the young offenders' perspective and comprehend their ordeal. Commented one visitor: "It makes me want to be good."

* 'We're Your Future Too' closes Sept. 7 at the Seattle Children's Museum.

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