I sit in the Lufrano Intercultural Gallery at the University of North Florida’s Student Union with Tony Rodrigues. As we talk, vibrant brush marks jump from the paintings that line the walls. A table in the center of the room holds rows of packaged snacks. Each group of packages sports a label with two initials. A mannequin stands in the corner wearing a brown cotton prison-issue shirt and pants; on it, printed in white, INMATE.
“You have to remember that they are children,” Rodrigues says of the artists, as he points toward a canvas that references Paul Jenkins, the famous Abstract Expressionist painter. “I have to keep reminding myself.”“So none of these young men have seen their eighteenth birthday?”“Exactly. They are all juveniles.” Rodrigues folds his arms. “And they have been charged with some very serious offenses.” A sigh. “They’re being adjudicated as adults.”We stand and walk closer to the paintings. A video monitor shows anonymous young men pushing paint on canvas with brushes and squeegees. I lift my glasses and push my nose toward one of the works. “These paintings give me chills.” Knowing the story adds a new dimension
to the work.“Some I find tough to look at, especially understanding what some of these guys are going through.” Rodrigues, a Jacksonville–based artist, has worked with incarcerated juvenile populations for almost twenty years. The program is supported by Cathedral Arts Project (CAP), a Jacksonville non-profit organization whose mission is to enrich the quality of life in Northeast Florida through unleashing the creative spirit of young people. They accomplish this by providing access to instruction in the visual and performing arts. CAP serves more than 2,000 students in their various programs and has worked with Duval County for several years providing art instruction to selected incarcerated participants.
“So have any of these guys ever had any art in school?” The deft application of paint and expressive marks catch my attention. “There’s something going on here that strikes a nerve. I feel as if I am looking at primal energy. Meaning clawing at the surface. Raw emotion.”
“Doubt they had much art in school. You’re right, this is raw. I think that Abstract Expressionism is the perfect inspiration for the project.” Rodrigues stands next to a painting that sports several warm marks applied to a cool blue-grey background. The streaks emit electricity that is palpable. “We talk about theory. They develop an understanding of some of the complex principles of art making.”
By Jim Draper