Paintings, drawings, and sculptures created by Division of Juvenile Justice youth are the focal point of an art exhibit in Stockton, marking the first time that their artistic creations have ever been viewed by the general public outside of their institution.

The exhibit, “The Way We See It,” will be open to the public for a free reception beginning August 13, and will run through September 11 at the Mexican Heritage Center in downtown Stockton.

The 30-plus pieces of artwork were created by 13-19 year old youth at the Johanna Boss High School in the O.H. Close Youth Correctional Facility. The art reflects their unique views on tolerance, diversity and their ethnic backgrounds among other influences from their education at the facility.

The artists and the center are bound by some common goals and ideals, according to Margarito Franco, an art instructor at Johanna Boss High School who helped students develop the exhibit. The center is dedicated to showing the works of young, Latin artists and was a good showcase for the youth at O.H. Close, 55 percent of whom are Latino.

Franco was especially proud that all the students at the school worked together to organize the exhibit. The Student Council sponsored the exhibit and chose the title. Students from throughout the facility participated in fund-raising projects to pay for framing the artwork. Other students, using Franco as a go-between, worked with the center to schedule the exhibit.
“It would have been easy for the staff to take this over, but we wanted the students to run it,” said Franco. “They were going to have to actively work on it to make it happen.”

He said the project generated enthusiasm and, like any competition among artists, it motivated everyone to do their best work. “We motivated each other and the students in the art class stepped up the ante,” Franco continued.
Even students who don’t win a prize or sell their work benefit from their time in the art classroom, Franco contends. “For some students, it’s a matter of finding themselves,” he said, emphasizing that discovering their unique, individual identity is a rehabilitative antidote to the sameness and uniformity of a gang mentality. “When they identify themselves as something other than a gang member, it lets them choose what they want for themselves.”

The exhibit, which opened July 30, has drawn interest from outside the community, including a judge from the Bay area who was given a tour by Franco.

Richard Rios, a Board of Directors member of the Mexican Heritage Center, acknowledged that showing the artwork of incarcerated youth was “a bit risky” and not the typical exhibit you see in an art gallery. Nonetheless, Rios, a former college instructor who also taught art in CYA facilities, was a strong supporter of the exhibit.

“I was really impressed with the quality of the work we saw,” said Rios. “Most of their skill is self-taught and is raw talent to begin with. Once you get the youth in a formal setting and begin teaching the basics of drawing and painting, you recognize some things,” such as the images that interest young kids, he said.
The potential is here for the youth to change their lives despite the decisions that incarcerated them in the first place. And you get a real sense of hope in the paintings.

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