By Mario Tarradell, Public Relations & Marketing Manager
The walls are lined with original artwork, a series of hanging multi-media pieces that courageously express the raw emotions of budding artists. But this isn’t your usual gallery. Couverture Art Studio sits inside the Dr. Jerome McNeil, Jr. Detention Center. It’s a small room adorned by a striking mural that thematically depicts the adage, “Can’t Judge a Book by its Cover.”
True words, since the studio’s painters currently live in the Center. Their works of art were on full display Monday, Aug. 24, during the unveiling of Couverture. The studio and its talented artists are the fruits of Big Thought’s Creative Solutions program, a 20-year partnership with the Dallas County Juvenile Department that utilizes professional teaching artist mentors and a research-based curriculum to enhance empathy, critical thinking, teamwork skills and grit in teen probates.
Janet Reynolds, Big Thought Creative Solutions teaching artist, is the calming and guiding influence behind 80 students, which she refers to as the “honors group,” because they have “earned the right, behaviorally, to be here.” There are five groups, Reynolds says, and they work with her four days a week for two hours each day. She has each group for one week, in which time each student creates a piece of inspired art. Collaborations are possible, but not the norm.
“Big Thought’s Creative Solutions allows me to come in and do that which is my purpose and my artistry, which is facilitating these young people to find their voices as individuals,” says Reynolds. “When you are working with art, you are working with heart. The heart space needs to be open in this environment. The art is the perfect skeleton. It becomes the framework upon which we can facilitate this. I am charged with recognizing and facilitating them as individuals regardless of their abilities.”
Reynolds provides a safe haven for self-expression to thrive. She makes sure all her students know that their talents will be nurtured. The results are a series of character-building accomplishments that change their outlook.
“I see that their world has become larger and has opened up to possibilities,” says Reynolds. “I also see that they can take a project to completion and they can master skills they never dreamed of. They are now artists solving problems.”
Cynthia Wallace, program and training manager for Dr. Jerome McNeil, Jr. Detention Center, visualized an art program at the center for years. She wanted something therapeutic for the kids. But it wasn’t until she connected with Big Thought, and with Reynolds during the first week of 2012, that her idea became a reality.
“The kids had never put brush to canvas,” says Wallace. “They had no idea that was inside of them. By the end of the week we were all in awe. Janet is such a master teacher. I have learned so much from her. The kids have learned so much from her. When you are in that class it is something that happens inside of you, your creative juices flow.”
Enter Francisco, the 16-year-old who painted the “Can’t Judge a Book by its Cover” mural inside the studio. Wallace had a picture she wanted transformed into a mural. She found exceptional drawing talent in Francisco and asked him if he could convert her small picture into a huge piece of wall art.
“I’m used to drawing freestyle,” says Francisco. “Miss Wallace came to me and asked me, ‘Can you draw this on the wall?’ I can do that, but I didn’t know I could do that.”
He began with pencil, then filled in with Sharpie marker, then four layers of paint, and then touch-ups with more Sharpies. He worked on it five hours each day. A month later the mural was finished. Francisco received a round of applause from the Couverture Art Studio unveiling crowd when Wallace introduced him as the artist behind the mural.
“When I saw everybody in the room looking at it, everybody clapping, it felt good,” says Francisco. “I felt proud that I could do something I didn’t know I could do. I already knew I was an artist because I knew how to draw, but now I know I have the talent that could take me somewhere.”
Wallace wants to see more success stories like Francisco. Her eyes light up as she talks about the future, not only the future of the Big Thought Creative Solutions program at Couverture Art Studio, but also the future of young lives enhanced by art.
“It’s amazing to partner with Big Thought, people who have a vision for kids,” says Wallace. “We are getting ready to start a new class. We have so many walls on this building to fill and we plan on filling them all. It’s amazing to have Big Thought in our lives.”