‘Safe Spaces’ exhibit highlights works by young artists with a loved one who’s incarcerated

PAMELA COTANT For the State Journal

Not only did a group of young artists get validation by having their work hung in a gallery for the first time, but they also sold 20 paintings at the opening reception.

The opening night, which also included two other exhibits, was the second-largest turnout at Abel Contemporary Gallery in Stoughton since the COVID-19 pandemic, owner Theresa Abel said.

“It’s cool that my art is up there so that other people can see it,” said Solomon Moore, a seventh-grader at Marshall Middle School.

Abel will give the young artists, who created the art through an organization called Cultural Connections, a blue ribbon commemorating their first art opening at the gallery. The paintings sold for a total of $1,640, and all sales went to the artists, minus a 10 percent cut for the art program. In addition, $55 was contributed in containers set up for donations to the program.

People are also reading…

“It exceeded my expectation. It was a great night,” Pat Dillon, founder and executive director of Cultural Connections, said about Friday’s opening.

Cultural Connections is a nonprofit organization that aims to end the cycle of familial incarceration by offering safe spaces to children with an incarcerated loved one who are statistically at risk of poor life outcomes. The youths and their allies forge partnerships with artists — mostly artists of color or those from the LGBTQ+ communities — and are then connected to opportunities within Dane County’s art and academic communities. These connections not only nurture creative self-expression, but also foster diversity, equity and inclusion, along with a sense of belonging to their larger community.

The Cultural Connections show is called “Safe Spaces” and will run through Feb. 26 along with the two other exhibits at Abel. “Steadfast,” by award-winning Madison painter Diane Washa, and a group show with work in a variety of mediums called “Middle of Nowhere” also opened Friday.

“It’s an opportunity for these kids to really feel like all of their hard work has paid off,” Abel said. “If I was a kid, I would think it was pretty special to have my work hanging in a gallery.”

Some of the artwork for “Safe Spaces” was created by MyArts 5 — five youths from different schools who have been in the program since it started in 2018 and meet at the Madison Youth Art Center, or MYArts. The other pieces were made by youths who met at the Goodman Community Center, Lake View Elementary School, Emerson Elementary School, Vera Court Neighborhood Center and the UW-Madison Odyssey Junior program.

Damien Smith, a fifth-grader at Lowell Elementary School, said the prospect of the show made him work harder so he would get his art done to be hung.

Dillon said the youths always do some kind of exhibition, and the exposure helps raise awareness about the impact of incarceration on families. When she approached Abel about a show in her gallery, the timing was right.

“Even before she knew finished describing the whole thing, I I was going to say, ‘Yes,'” Abel said.

Abel said the show is in a separate area, which is a gallery space called “no. 5,” created for all kinds of purposes. The name comes from the fact that the Abel Contemporary Gallery was created in one of the three surviving tobacco warehouses that was number five among the 17 that once existed in Stoughton. The no. 5 space also mimics the cooler that had been turned into a gallery space when Abel was formerly located in an old creamery in Paoli.

“In general, it’s a neat program to support,” Abel said about Cultural Connections.

She hopes that when the students see their art hung in a gallery, it helps them see there are endless possibilities for whatever paths they choose to pursue.

Jessica Courtier, director of community partnerships for MYArts, said the arts center provides space for groups on a sliding scale basis so that it is accessible and affordable.

“Our mission is about ensuring opportunities for young people to express themselves, discover the arts and create connections,” Courtier said, “Their work fits so beautifully with the mission of MYArts.”

Smith said it’s good to be with others who have family members who are incarcerated, and it’s fun to paint.

“I just like doing the art and the meaning behind the club,” said Madison Nodich, a seventh-grader at Black Hawk. “I know I’m not alone dealing with it, the impact.”

Persia Carter, a seventh grader at Black Hawk, joined the program through her friendship with Madison and likes hanging out with her friends as part of the group that goes to MYArts.

“I like to create art and also because I have something to do … paint and have fun with my friends while painting,” Moore said.

Mariah Justice, program coordinator for Cultural Connections, said art is “tangible.”

Dillon said the students are shown books and videos about art and may be asked to mimic a certain style, but they are still encouraged to “do their own thing.” While all of the students consider themselves artists, that’s not the program’s intent, she said.

“It’s something that feels good,” she said. “If we make artists — great.”

Each Monday, the Wisconsin State Journal features a story about learning in Wisconsin. Here are School Spotlight stories from the past year.

Comments are closed.