Art students reach out to girls in detention center

April 27, 2007

For an hour and half on Friday afternoons the members of Art Beyond Cornell exchange the walls of Tjaden Hall for those of a medium-security juvenile detention center about 15 miles outside Ithaca. At Lansing Residential Center about 20 female art majors have been offering weekly art classes to the young women who live and attend school there.

The project began in 2005, when one particularly talented resident requested an art mentor. A group of students responded and now regularly prepare and give instruction each week. The young women are between the ages of 14 and 17, mostly from the New York City area.  

The Cornell students focus on a different topic each week, such as figure drawing or still life painting (photography is not allowed for security reasons). “We are not really trying to teach technique,” says Hannah Mattheus-Kairys, one of the founding members of Art Beyond Cornell, “so much as to encourage self-expression.” A number of the Lansing girls are not really interested in art, but they value the time they spend with the Cornell students for other reasons. Many of the girls feel alienated and lack self-esteem. “Some of them are cut off and unresponsive, while others are very responsive. Our goal is to interact with them, have fun, and talk,” says Mattheus-Kairys.  

Martha O’Connell, another Cornell participant, explained what the girls at Lansing have shown her: “Participating in the process of art creates a place for people to communicate, relax, care, escape, and find out. We can never be sure what the girls take from the Friday afternoons, but they teach us so much, and hopefully they see how much we believe in art and in them. What I hope for most is that they know how seriously we take the art we do with them, their afternoons with us and their lives beyond Lansing. And in knowing that, I hope that they are able to believe in themselves.”  

Last year Cornell and Lansing students worked together to design and execute two murals at the facility, which is otherwise stark and institutional. In February of this year, for the first time, Art Beyond Cornell mounted an exhibit called “Voice” in Tjaden Hall, to bring the work of the Lansing residents to its first public audience.  

In recognition of their work and the exhibition, Art Beyond Cornell was awarded an Outstanding Activist Award by Cornell’s Student Activities Office at the annual awards and recognition event on April 24.  

“Because of the many individual personalities, the ever-shifting classroom dynamic, and the aspect of collaboration, the works exhibit striking variety,” comment the curators of the exhibition. “One thing that unites all of them, however, is a great sense of humor and a creativity that might otherwise go unexpressed.”

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