Carlos’ eyes shine as he explains that art has been a lifesaver during his stay at TJJD.
“I live, eat and breathe art. It’s something I cannot stop doing. It helps me with everything – calming down, expressing my feelings, reminding me of home,” he says, flipping through a sketchbook filled with anime figures and landscapes.
Carlos (a pseudonym) enjoyed art as a child, but didn’t think he had much talent until he resumed drawing and painting while at Lone Star High School North at the Gainesville State School.
There, art teacher LaVerne Harrison, seeing his talent, challenged Carlos to “show me your best effort.”
The result: A watercolor of "The Hundred Acre Wood," the fictional land of Winnie the Pooh, which is now featured on the Texas Juvenile Justice Department website.
In fact, student artists like Carlos at campuses all across the agency have contributed their artwork to bring the website to life.
Their colorful paintings and drawings are the only artwork used to illustrate the site, helping to reinforce the idea that TJJD is an agency focused on youth.
As for Carlos, he has fond memories of the Pooh stories his parents read to him as a small boy. Those memories and his aspirations for the future infuse his art works, which feature bright images of the beach and forests and figures from anime fantasy worlds. Unlike many youth who enter the juvenile justice system, Carlos comes from an intact, attentive family and during his time at TJJD he yearned to return to the comfort of home, where his younger siblings awaited. He wanted to put this detour in his life firmly behind him.
Carlos thrived in art class, and favored watercolor, creating several bright, happy works such as this one.
His efforts to change became apparent while he was in high school at the Gainesville campus, where art became his vehicle for change.
“He was focused on every project he worked on. He even did pictures for another teacher. He also did a mural for the football team in our weight room. He would come to class to do his daily assignment and then rush off to the gym to draw and paint,” Harrison recalled. “Those were happy days for him.”
Harrison’s support and the privilege to paint those murals at Gainesville unleashed Carlos’ drive. In class, he tried acrylics, pencil and watercolor, finding the latter to be his medium of choice.
Not every student arrives in class wanting to work, or even believing they can create any worthy art, says Harrison. But often, even those who profess not to care can be coaxed into trying. Soon they are doodling away in a sketch pad or fiddling with a piece of clay.
“Art can be very soothing,” she says. Soon, she’ll look up, and the latest reluctant recruit is bringing her a drawing or 3-D object, offering it for assessment and a bit surprised that it came out.
“It gives them a sense of pride. They can say, ‘That’s mine, I did that!’ We all like recognition for things we do, big or small. Like somebody says, ‘Wow, that’s good!’ And they like it.”
Harrison should know. She’s taught at the Gainesville State School for 25 years, teaching art and team leadership. ”It has been fun and I’ve felt I made a difference,” she says. “God led me here and I’m going to stay until he tells me to move.”
Tami Sanders also has found her calling as an art teacher for TJJD, where she forged a special bond with students during three years teaching at the McLennan County State Juvenile Correctional Facility.
A former foster child and teen mom, Sanders said she could relate to the youth who’ve faced difficult circumstances growing up. They knew she didn’t see their situation as a hypothetical and that gave her voice weight.
“I don’t lecture them, but I can talk to them,” she said. Sometimes a youth would tell her that they robbed or stole because they needed Jordan shoes or some other consumer item of the moment. And that’s her opening. “I tell them . . . Were shoes worth your freedom? Is this the kind of life you want?”
Art students at the McLennan County facility took over the surfaces of Sanders area, painting lively murals.
Sanders also shared her own story of having turned her life around, joining the Navy, using the GI Bill to get a college degree, becoming a teacher and raising her daughter, who’s now a college graduate as well.
In the classroom, she likes to offer the youth many choices, a salvo in a setting that’s highly structured by necessity. “I don’t want to be that teacher that I didn’t like growing up, who said, ‘We’re all going to paint fruit today’.” Some students may not want to paint fruit, says Sanders, who previously worked as a commercial artist and a public school art teacher in Tomball, Texas.
So instead of dictating one subject, she offers the class broad themes to think about. The day we spoke, the youth were working on the concept of “emphasis.” Some students were noodling on that theme with pencils, others with paint, still others with papier-mâché.
As the creativity flowed over the years, Sanders’ room morphed into a colorful, private art gallery, with student murals of dragons and fishes on the walls and collections of art objects arrayed on shelves.
“Art saved my life, and if it can help them get through their time here, that’s great.”
A few weeks before he returned home, Carlos reflected over his early work with Ms. Harrison, including his first acrylic painting, a portrait of two cuddly anime figures that’s surprisingly good and well- proportioned for a first effort. Another sketch, in stark black, white and red, features a different anime character, Naruto.
Naruto is crying red tears.
Like his artwork Carlos is a complex blend of light and dark. Direct and forthright, he flashes a quick smile, direct gaze and positive demeanor that will serve him well as he ventures onward.
Harrison saw Carlos’ first work, an anime in acrylic, as evidence of his natural talent.
But his smile wavers as he scans the dayroom of the halfway house, his temporary residence, with its lockers, guard desk and other reminders of his missteps. He says he knows he must stay away from negative influences and stick to his work and education plans when he’s back home.
At TJJD, he earned his graduate equivalency degree and gained work experience at a McDonalds near the halfway house. He is eager to put his learnings to work, save for college, and get on with his future, including his art.
“I really do want to pursue something in graphic arts,” he muses. “I didn’t think of it as a career. . . “
But maybe; maybe, he says, it could be.