During the past two years, in collaboration with Northampton County Juvenile Justice Center (NCJJC) staff and residents, we completed six murals that now hang in the hallway near the residents’ dorm-style suites. These ongoing mural projects provide a way for the teens to nurture their creativity while completing this residential treatment program.
Mural by residents at NCJJC, 2019. Inspired by street artist Thank You X. Acrylic paint, découpage medium, and paper on wood, 8 x 4' (2 x 1 m).Mural by residents at NCJJC, 2018. Inspired by artist Chrissie Grace. Acrylic paint on wood, 8 x 4'.
I am the director of the art education program at Moravian College in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. In addition to my work as a faculty member, I teach classes in art and mindfulness at the Northampton County Juvenile Justice Center (NCJJC) in Easton, Pennsylvania. These classes are funded through the Shanthi Project, a nonprofit organization based in Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania, that provides mindfulness and therapeutic yoga programs to people in prisons, K–12 students in public schools, and trauma survivors of all ages in other settings. (Learn more about the Shanthi Project in the Resource below.)
During the past two years, in collaboration with NCJJC staff and residents, we completed six murals that now hang in the hallway near the residents’ dorm-style suites. These ongoing mural projects provide a way for the teens to nurture their creativity while completing this residential treatment program.
In 2018, the first year of the program, we created three murals. The first is based on Vincent van Gogh’s Café Terrace at Night; the second features a giant bee in the center with the quote “Bee Yourself”; and the third is a landscape inspired by the work of artist Chrissie Grace.
Inspiration from Artist Thank You X
In 2019, we chose more abstract designs for the murals. For example, working with NCJJC staff, we decided to create a mural inspired by the work of street artist, Thank You X. To start the process, residents and I discussed the artist’s original works of art. Since I didn’t have access to the Internet or a projector at the NCJJC, I saved photos to my laptop and residents gathered around my screen to view them.
After viewing Thank You X’s cube murals, I asked residents to paint or collage at least one cube for our geometric mural. We created these cube-shaped works of art on mixed-media paper. One of the “rules” we discussed before decorating the cubes was to paint the “top” of the cube black to keep one consistent design element. We also agreed to avoid using corporate logos, such as clothing or sneaker logos, though some sports logos still appeared in the final design. This led to a meaningful conversation about how we all have preferences for certain types of clothing. In the end, there were no clear-cut rules, but the conversation gave the teens space to critically reflect on what they were portraying, and why.
Once the final images and quotes were selected, I projected residents’ designs onto gessoed 8 x 4' (2 x 1 m) pieces of plywood, which made it easy to then sketch out and trace. Preparing the murals ahead of time was helpful for the NCJJC staff who worked with the teens during their winter break. The staff and teens used acrylic paint for the designs, and découpage medium to attach each of the paper cubes to the mural.
The murals are a positive contribution for the NCJJC because they add the residents’ own creativity to their temporary home. They offer the teens a sense of agency and choice-making, foster collaboration, and highlight the value of working towards a common goal.
Art teachers foster a collaborative environment through group projects. Young students learn to use a sewing machine and join their individual fabric squares into a class quilt, elementary students participate in a school-wide effort to learn about biodiversity protection efforts in Bioko, middle-school students connect to real-world scenarios and interdisciplinary problem-solving to collaboratively design games, and high-school students team up with a former art student to create a mural that celebrates all subjects and disciplines.