Shuman Detention Center Workshop - 2

After returning from Touchstone, it was time for a weekend in Pittsburgh followed by my work with the young people in Shuman Detention Center. The detention centre is a place for people under the age of 18 who have been charged with a crime but who have not been tried. I am not going to mince my words about this practice - which is also prevalent in the UK - and I think that there is something deeply wrong about holding people who have not been found guilty as if they were already criminals. When this practice is extended to people under 18 - children - it becomes more than simply wrong but turns into a question of morality. To treat a child who is "guilty until proven innocent" as if they were guilty by incarcerating them in a prison-like environment where they have no access to their friends, family, their own clothes, their music, their lives, is immoral. In the UK, someone held in these circumstances at least has some recompense: if guilty, they have their sentences cut by the detention time; in the US, this is not the case and the full sentence must be fulfilled. What happens in either country if the person is found innocent, I am not clear.

The first thing I would say about the Shuman Detention Center is that although it seems like a prison with locks and checks and guards and uniforms for the inmates, every single member of staff seemed to me to be completely committed to the welbeing of their charges and the respect shown in both directions was remarkable.

The children have classes as in a regular school, things like maths and history and, importantly, in art. I was brought in by my contacts at the Society for Contemporary Crafts in Pittsburgh, Sherrard Bostwick and Gerry Florida, with whom I had the pleasure of working for the two days that I was in the centre. Normally, the young people have classes throughout the day in periods of 25 minutes. It was something of an experiment to stretch this out to being two classes of four hours, with a break in the middle of each for lunch. Still, the majority of the students came back on the second day and I even had some extra students who were especially keen to come in and work.

Before I progress with talking about the work that was made, I should point out that I am forbidden - understandably - by law from mentioning the young people by name or from posting their faces online, so while I do normally credit other people with their work, I can't do that here.

Some of you may already be aware of the forthcoming exhibition at the SCC, "Enough Violence: Artists Speak Out" - I have been preparing some work for the show which I will post after it opens - and the people in the group at Shuman were invited to take part in this, making work which reflects their own experiences of violence in their own lives.

The Monday morning session started off with an introduction to me and my work and to the plan for the two days. I handed round my work for the young people to look at and handle and explore, to find out what it was that makes my own work interesting - hinges, hidden sections, narrative elements, gemstones, surprises, the fascination of identifying keys and nails in something like a neck-chain...

My plan was to get each of the people in the workshop to make a piece based on an "Altoids" mint tin. I have always had a fondness for these tins but have never really got round to making anything from them and without really thinking it through, it was exactly the right choice of project, to which they responded with enthusiasm.

Shuman Detention Center Workshop - 4

Each student ended making up more than one box and I was really surprised at the way in which they tackled the issues, sometimes very obliquely, sometimes shockingly directly. Interestingly, Shuman rules forbade us from using any actual images of guns or other weapons in the work and this worked to our advantage, forcing them to think around their lives and experiences to create work which referenced violence in less obvious ways.

Shuman Detention Center Workshop - 5

Above, "Mr Kdak", pendant into which you can look to see kaleidoscopic reflections of rainbows.

Shuman Detention Center Workshop - 7

Above, "Jesus Was A Spaceman".

Shuman Detention Center Workshop - 8

Shuman Detention Center Workshop - 9

Above, "Box For My Daughter" with amulet to keep her safe.

This box was made by the person who features in the first image in this blog; the disconnect between his nostalgic feminine work and his wiry, tense persona is remarkable.

Shuman Detention Center Workshop - 10

Shuman Detention Center Workshop - 11

Above, "1400", a box about drug-dealing.

The person who made this box wouldn't tell anyone the significance of the number 1400.

Shuman Detention Center Workshop - 13

Above, untitled - a box about being trapped.

Shuman Detention Center Workshop - 12

All the boxes created and ready for the exhibition. A number more were made and taken away by the students to give to their families or friends.

I am proud to have been associated with this project. Perhaps people won't understand when I say that it was a privilege to have been able to go into the centre and work with these people but that is how I feel about it.

Tomorrow: more on the violence project, this time working with young people who were in the SCC as part of the "Artist and Kids" programme.


Sherrard Bostwick wrote the following article on what happened at the detention center and which she has allowed me to publish here:

In a detention center there is nowhere to go and adornment is essentially eliminated. This is why when Scottish metal art Dauvit Alexander was removing his neck wear to show it to the twelve detention inmate students, time hung with anticipation. Dauvit had just casually slipped off his heavy rings, created from nuts one might find in a dusty jar of nuts and bolts in a house lived in forever. The students eagerly examined the precious stones inlaid in the nuts. They lingered on the stones losing themselves in the color and luminosity, which was a stark contrast to the students’ dull dark blue uniforms and tan plastic slippers. Mr. Alexander was invited as a guest artist to teach at the Shuman Juvenile Detention Center in Pittsburgh, PA as part of the programming leading up to the Society for Contemporary Craft’s Enough Violence exhibition running September 2013 to March 2014. Dauvit is known for his complex and secretive fittings. These are what delayed the removal of the neck ware, and heightened the expectation. The chain is made of interconnected keys, which added to the mystery. One student asked, “What do they open?”

If the context had been a gallery with possible patrons examining the artwork, I do not think the power of the piece would have been as obvious. Distracted by to purchase or not to purchase, a patron may have not been so aware of something so marvelous happening. The neck ware fell free into Dauvit’s hands as he extended his arm to share it with the students. Here in the detention center time seems stopped because everyone is just waiting for his or her release. Dauvit’s release of the fitting unlocked the frozen time of detention for a few seconds. It made me think of seeing Cappy Counard open her Perceptions, 2011 during SCC’s Transformation 8: Contemporary Works in Jewelry and Small Metals exhibition. Each layer takes your breath away like the architecture of Hagia Sophia, which inspired the piece. Or remembering the timeless walks across cultures as Mariko Kusumoto opens her works to display the unfolding stories.

So what do these artworks open? What secrets in time? Mary Warnock argues in Imagination and Time, “To lead human life, a man must have a notion of himself as having a past and a future… it is an essential feature of imagination that it enables us to think about things that are absent, including things which no longer exist or do not yet exist. It is thus only through imagination that a man has a concept of himself as having a history which is not yet finished.” [1] So to answer the student, Dauvit’s keys open the imagination. They are the keys to time that give us hope we are not yet finished and there is more living to do.


[1] Mary Warnock, Imagination and Time (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1994), 2.

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