Finding Creative Spirit in Crisis

This story is from Arts Corps’ new magazine and annual report. Read all the articles here.

The youth at Spruce Street Secure Crisis Residential Center all have one thing in common – they are in crisis. Youth are brought to the center by police when they are found as a runaway or are in dangerous circumstances. Some are fleeing a home of domestic violence. Some are in gangs. Some are bouncing around the foster care system. Some are battling mental illness.

They are all in crisis.

Their stay at Spruce Street ranges from 1-2 weeks. To keep everyone safe, the youth – ages 12-17 – are given facility clothing upon arrival and are required to hand over all of their belongings. Aside from special trips, they are kept in a sort of lock down. Except instead of locks on the outside of their bedroom doors to keep them in, they have locks on the inside to keep people out and keep themselves safe (staff all have keys).

Services are intensive – counseling, behavior modification, coping skills, self-awareness, group therapy, substance abuse screening. The hope is that once they return to the outside world, they are better equipped to begin creating their own stability and imagine different possibilities.Arts Corps has been a part of Spruce Street’s program since 2006. It’s unlike any of our other sites. Instead of building relationships with students over a 16-week quarter, teaching artists at Spruce Street see each youth once or twice at the most. During that short and intensive time, they have to act fast, read the youth and determine how to help them reach into themselves and express something meaningful. Often they are confronted with hostility, indifference or verbal attacks. But the teaching artists we send in are compassionate and highly skilled in creating safe spaces for youth in crisis to learn a different way, even if just for one moment. Sometimes that moment carries with them.

artwork by a youth at Spruce Street

Spruce Street Youth Supervisor Jim Marsh tells a story about one young man who came through the facility. “He was hostile, very angry at his family. Vicky [Edmonds, Arts Corps teaching artist] came in and we did poetry and he wrote a poem about his family. It wasn’t the nicest poem but it was real. Later, we were sitting at a family meeting and all these adults were talking at him and about him. He referenced that poem to express how angry he was. Before, his anger was expressed with foul language and behavioral issues. He said writing that poem helped him get to how angry he really was. That was so powerful; he was finally able to articulate something that had been plaguing him for a long time.”

“I think about this a lot – this is a place where people go in crisis. How can art address that? We can explore the commonality of crisis. In that hour [of art] is a whole new world they become part of. They see other opportunities for their lives,” says Jim.

Arts Corps Teaching Artist Geoffrey Garza teaches visual art at Spruce Street. He is adept at reading the emotional vibe of the students, and Jim says Geoffrey has taught youth and staff alike that there are no mistakes. It’s all learning.

In a blog, Geoffrey tells the story about a particularly oppositional student at Spruce Street. He antagonized Geoffrey, threateningly circling around the art table. Geoffrey set out a piece of paper and the youth stood over it. “I want to throw paint on it,” he said. Geoffrey found tubes of paint and told him to go for it. For 45 intense minutes, the youth intensely sprayed, smeared and splattered paint across the paper, hands and body covered in paint, guttural noises accompanying every move. Geoffrey then showed him pictures of Dale Chilhuly using a broom to push color around, his feet covered in paint splatters. The youth studied it, said, “cool” and asked for another piece of paper.

A life-changing moment? We can never really know. But in that moment, that youth saw a totally different possibility. And he made it happen himself.

This year, Arts Corps will be taking the partnership with Spruce Street one step further, helping develop a framework to evaluate and measure the success of their programs. This work is part of Carnegie Hall’s Musical Connections program, of which Arts Corps is a national network member. It was the strength of Arts Corps’ programming in high-need community settings like Spruce Street that drew the attention of Carnegie Hall for this program.

With this national resource, Arts Corps’ goal and hope is to provide the Spruce Street staff with an assessment tool to measure the impact of arts programs in their facility.

Lana Crawford, executive director of Spruce Street, says she knows there is an impact, but it’s often hard to know how much. “We can’t put the whole fire out, but we can start,” says Lana. “Art is key. Art is huge in helping them express themselves.”

An assessment tool will help them – and Arts Corps – understand what they intuitively already know: somehow, in some way, they are making an impact.

“We’re trying to create a safe space for these kids. A space where no one is hurting them, no one is threatening them, no one is putting them down. A lot of them have never had that. That’s a big deal. It’s to get them stabilized and thinking about what’s going on in their life and what they are going to do,” says Jim.

Jim says watching Arts Corps teaching artists at Spruce Street has taught him about how to connect to the youth and help them see their own strengths and talents.

“I love it when the kids find their voices. Some days I tell the kids, ‘Anything you want to say to me, you have to do in a poem.’ And then they find their creative spirit.”