The positive, community spirit of the CONNECT Hyde Park Art Festival – the three-day, multi-sited art event that took place November 18-20, 2016 – lives on in a new temporary exhibition space named the CONNECT Gallery, currently located at 1504 E. 53rd Street. The gallery’s current show, “Mitigating Evidence,” is an exhibition of writing and art created by students in the Free Write Arts & Literacy program at the Cook County Juvenile Detention Facility.
“…‘Mitigating Evidence’ is a strategy to interrupt the presumptions, stereotypes and fears about people in detention, jail, and prison. (It) is a space in which incarcerated artists are reclaiming their artistry, authorship, and, therefore, their humanity. Mitigating evidence is presented in legal proceedings, either to impact the court’s decision or to alleviate harsh sentencing. Presenting a curated selection of work made by Free Write Arts & Literacy students, the exhibition offers community members the opportunity to view a wide range of art and writing, learn about issues of juvenile incarceration in Illinois, and respond to the sociopolitical climate that has given rise to the Prison-Industrial Complex. CONNECT Gallery’s mission is to take intimidation out of the gallery experience by merging community and culture, creating a space that inspires social innovation through art."
The 53rd Street Blog recently met with Ryan Keesling, executive director of Free Write Arts & Literacy and Free Write alumnus, 18-year-old Marshawn Knight, to learn more about the organization and exhibition.
Keesling was a graduate education student at Northwestern in 2000, when he founded the program, originally a part-time literacy project within the Nancy B. Jefferson Alternative School at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center. In working to improve reading skills with teens left behind in the education system, Keesling found that using the students’ own stories as authentic text versus beginner reading books was inspiring to them, and ultimately led to other components in the program, including creative writing, visual art, music production, and audio recording. In its simplest form, the program uses art as a means of delivering its participants to the next phase of their lives. Keesling explains, “(Creative work) fleshes out the character of the person – it’s a deeper story than just that one bad thing that the person may or may not have done – for the artist themselves and for the public to change the narrative.” He says, “Don’t write anyone off; if they’re given a place to grow and shine, they will.”
In Knight’s case, he doesn’t necessarily want to be a professional writer, but he’s using his writing skills as a tool to express himself – “…to free myself, (and gain) a better understanding of who I am through art – through writing instead of doing negative things, (using expression as) a way to get things out.”
According to the organization’s website, "Each week, Free Write engages approximately 65 youth between the ages of 12 to 24 in a myriad of literacy building and positive youth development programs. Each student keeps a portfolio of their daily progress in tutoring, creative writing, visual art, audio recording and independent work. The Free Write team comprised of board, staff and volunteers engage with court-involved youth year-round, during school and after school." The organization has nine staff members, including five full time workers plus four part-time alumni program members.
Contributions to the Free Write Arts & Literacy program are always welcome, through the sale of anthologies (available at the gallery or The Silver Room), monetary donations, or donation of materials such as composition books, law dictionaries, graphic novels, rhyming dictionaries, or GED/ACT books. More information on ways to support the program can be found here.
The “Mitigating Evidence” exhibit closes on Thursday, February 9, with a reading and discussion featuring Dr. Heather Ann Thompson, author of the acclaimed book, Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and its Legacy. The evening begins with a reception at 6:30 p.m., followed by the reading at 7:15 p.m.
Hours for the space are Tuesday and Thursday 12-3 p.m., Saturday 1-6 p.m., and by appointment by contacting Keesling via email. After this exhibition, the CONNECT Gallery may be moving to another location in Hyde Park, with details to be released soon.