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Bechtler Museum Brings Art To A Different Kind Of Classroom, Jail North

What do you get when a jail and a museum partner together? In the case of this story the answer is…an art class. The Bechtler Museum has been working to bring art and the museum world into an unlikely classroom: Jail North. WFAE’s Sarah Delia recently spent the day in class and has this story.

Artist Anna Kenar teaches at UNC Charlotte and Rowan Cabarrus Community College. But this week her classroom setting is a little different. She’s teaching a print making process to a group of about 10 male teenagers…and the classroom is in Jail North on Spector Drive in Charlotte.

The room looks like a typical classroom, there are tables, chairs, and a whiteboard at the front. The noticeable difference is that every student is in a green jumpsuit with white letters on the back that read “Youthful Offender” or “Juvenile Mecklenburg County Jail.”

"I think we have these moments of tension almost every time because we come in here and you have this very specific group dynamic, these guys are not friends, sometimes they are sometimes they are not," Kenar said. "So we have to watch and be conscious of what’s happening, how they interact with each other."

The class is a week long and lasts two hours a day. Kenar does have help from Mykell Gates, the Bechteler's school and community programs manager.

Looking around the class one finished print has two drama masks—one face with a sinister-looking smile, the other with a distraught expression. Another print is of two hands outstretched toward what looks like red rain or tear drops. One print is simply an outline of a structure most would draw when asked what home looks like.

Kenar and Gates go from table to table trying to keep up with the hands flying back and forth in the air vying for attention. This is not the type of class where teachers want to see familiar faces.

"For us, it’s really nice to see them and work with them, but on the other hand it’s really disappointing that we see them again," Kenar said. "It’s good to see you, but why are you are you here again? I don’t want to see you here again."

The week-long class takes place six times in a year. The Bechtler relies on grants to bring these art classes to Jail North. And the museum works with jail officials to make sure inmates benefit from the program and stay within the bounds of what’s appropriate for a jail setting. That includes what art materials can be brought inside.  

Keith Cradle is the Adolescent Program Manager for the Sheriff’s office. He's also on the Bechtler’s board of directors. He says art class is a sort of sacred space that the teens respect. The class starts with a conversation letting them know that this is a place to express themselves.

"I think once that conversation is had, once they get to know Ms. Kenar and Ms. Gates that that responsibility now falls onto them and they feel accountable for the program," Cradle says.  "And that’s another intangible skill. They don’t want to be the ones who mess it up on the next class."

Plus, art can be therapeutic.

"This program teaches them how to cool down and find a creative outlet. For a lot of them there is a level of completion," Cradle says. "Starting something and finishing it. And then having that ability to feel good about doing something you created."

Both jail and museum officials say this program is a meaningful experience for the students. Keith Cradle says when inmates get ready to leave, they often ask about their art.

By all accounts it looks like the group did get a lot out of this class, but for this story, media wasn’t allowed to speak to any of the teens. Luckily, I was put in touch with Jacob, a Charlotte 18-year-old who completed the art program last year. He was in jail for about three months when he was 17.

For Jacob, the art class was a life line.

"It was only a week but that whole week I was looking forward to it every day. It helped me get things off my chest. We were all focusing on what we were doing and there was a lot of good vibes while we were in there," he recalls.  "Honestly, when the teachers say things to you like 'you’re good at this' that helps when you are in a place where everyone’s not out for your best interests. It’s just really important for people to hear that in that situation, 'you’re good at something' or 'you can do this.'"

Jacob wants to become a personal trainer and plans to study at CPCC this fall.

There are options when it comes to what happens to the art made during the program. It can be taken home or donated to the Bechtler for display, which is a pretty neat opportunity.

The third option may be the least glamorous, but it’s one that Jacob picked besides the few pieces he kept to bring home. Jacob opted to leave some of his art behind to be hung in the jail library. He says people there are who need to see art the most.

Sarah Delia is a Senior Producer for Charlotte Talks with Mike Collins. Sarah joined the WFAE news team in 2014. An Edward R. Murrow Award-winning journalist, Sarah has lived and told stories from Maine, New York, Indiana, Alabama, Virginia and North Carolina. Sarah received her B.A. in English and Art history from James Madison University, where she began her broadcast career at college radio station WXJM. Sarah has interned and worked at NPR in Washington DC, interned and freelanced for WNYC, and attended the Salt Institute for Radio Documentary Studies.