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3 Murals Inside A Juvenile Hall In Boyle Heights Give Youth A Space To Express And Aspire

This mural is one of three unveiled at a recent dedication ceremony at Central Juvenile Hall. (Morgan Lieberman for LAist)
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Three new murals cover some of the cinderblock walls of Central Juvenile Hall in Boyle Heights, but they weren't created for the incarcerated youth -- they were designed and painted in collaboration with the young people.

The images are aspirational. They represent leaders and attributes the teens admire: A person planting corn. An astronaut. Portraits of Dolores Huerta and Barack Obama. A rainbow quilt featuring inspirational women like Harriet Tubman and Amelia Earhart.

And they are yet another example of the ongoing effort to bring art to youth in Los Angeles County's juvenile justice system. Advocates say access to the arts allows youths to express themselves and helps them connect with the staff and each other.

A local arts non-profit called Theatre of Hearts/Youth First teamed up with the Los Angeles County Office of Education and the county's Probation Department to work with young people housed at the juvenile hall on the three new mural projects -- the "Wall of Achievements," the "Wall of Unity," and the "Women of History Quilt." The three murals were unveiled at a recent dedication ceremony.

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"It's just a wonderful time and opportunity for the young people to express what they're feeling inside through art," said Sheila Mitchell, Chief Deputy for Juvenile Services at the Los Angeles County Probation Department. "And then to also express what they've learned in their classroom."


Not only did the youth help artists design and paint the murals, they also worked with writers to express themselves with poetry. (Morgan Lieberman for LAist)

Each section of the "Wall of Achievements" features one of the themes that inspired the art: empowerment, discovery, and resilience. Three creative writing artists and three visual artists worked with the students on the murals and the accompanying poetry.

Heriberto Luna, an artist, worked with the young men to create a mural called "The Wall of Achievements." (Morgan Lieberman for LAist)
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Artist Heriberto Luna said he was honored to work with the young people on the "Wall of Achievements" project, which featured the astronaut along with images of protesters and a corn farmer.

Transformation, empowerment, discovery, resilience are the key words the kids were working with in class ... The kids helped out with the concept of the drawing and the painting ... Even probation helped out.

They were very into the project, so I had a lot of help. The kids literally painted at least 90% ... like a little army ... I had some kids that were like, "Oh, I don't want to be part of it." But once they saw the project going forward, they all wanted to be a part of it.


"The Wall of Unity" at Central Juvenile Hall features a portrait of civil rights icon Dolores Huerta. (Morgan Lieberman for LAist)
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The "Wall of Unity" is located in a big upstairs room. Kerri Webb, a spokesperson for the Probation Department, said it's where probation officers send young men who need time to relax and breathe.

On the left side of the wall is a portrait of activist Dolores Huerta.

In addition to designing and painting the murals, the youth also worked with artists to write the poems featured on the murals. (Morgan Lieberman for LAist)

The right side features a portrait of former President Barack Obama.

Artist Michael Massenburg stands next to a mural he created with youth housed at Central Juvenile Hall in Boyle Heights. (Morgan Lieberman for LAist)
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Artist Michael Massenburg emphasized collaboration when working with his young people on the "Wall of Unity."

Everything is tied into the curriculum. Everything's tied into some things that they feel strongly about. And so it was a true collaboration on all different levels.

For some students, it's their first time actually working on something like this, and maybe even their first time collaborating in any form. You have to be a team. And for some of them it's like stepping into the unknown, have to trust in the group, trust in me ...

It was really an honor and a privilege to be able to see how it transformed, how you saw some of the students be able to start and see it. Some got involved really early, some in the middle, some later on, but everybody had a piece of it, no matter what their experience is.


A visitor takes a picture of the "Women of History Quilt" at Central Juvenile Hall in Boyle Heights. (Morgan Lieberman for LAist)

The "Women of History Quilt" was painted by young women in collaboration with artist Norma Montoya. It features images of women like Harriett Tubman and Amelia Earhart scattered over hexagons in all colors of the rainbow.

The women featured on the quilt include Rosa Parks, Rosie the Riveter, and astronaut Ellen Ochoa.(Morgan Lieberman for LAist)

"Every time a young woman will look at this, she will have heroes," Theatre of Hearts/Youth First executive director Sheila Scott-Wilkinson said when introducing the "Women of History Quilt."


Over the years, Theatre of Hearts/Youth First has helped incarcerated young people across the Probation Department's camps and halls complete 24 murals.

But they're not the only organization providing arts opportunities for young people in probation's care. In fact, there's a whole network of theater, music, poetry, and creative writing organizations that work with incarcerated youths in Los Angeles County. This year, the California Arts Council gave out over $1.8 million to organizations working with young people in the juvenile justice system. It's an effort we've reported on a bunch.

I wanted to know what effect these art opportunities have on the teenagers, so I asked a young person. As a condition of being able to interview her, we can't use her name.

She said she likes the colors of the new "Women of History Quilt" mural, even if she didn't work on it herself.

And, it turns out, she had worked on a different mural with another arts program.

A young person walks by a mural at Central Juvenile Hall in Boyle Heights. (Morgan Lieberman for LAist)

"I liked it because it gave us something to do," she said. "Instead of staying in our room, we had time to be free and paint and talk and I think that it caused a lot less problems when we were all talking, got to know each other."

Even though the painting process is done, she said the murals - and their bright colors - still have an impact on her.

"When you're irritated and [you] look [up], it kinda catches your eye," she explained. "It's like mindfulness, kind of, in a way."

She said she hopes that in the future, other girls like her will have opportunities to express themselves creatively, too.