Arts in Detention: program unlocks creativity from the inside for GVRC youth

Photo of a movement/dance exercise in the Arts in Detention exhibit (Photo of photo by Teddy Robertson)

By Teddy Robertson

It’s a drizzly April night for Art Walk, but I’m out for just one stop: Buckham Gallery and the opening of the annual “Arts in Detention: GVRC Share Art Exhibit.”

“Arts in Detention” presents the work of kids ages 10 to 17 living in the Genesee Valley Regional Detention Center (GVRC), on Pasadena Avenue in Flint.  A short-term residential facility (capacity 60), GVRC currently houses 45 to 50 young people; their charges range from truancy to murder.  Three nights a week, girls and boys participate in writing and spoken word, visual arts, theatre, and dance workshops. The GVRC Share Art program partners with Buckham Gallery to bring art to youth in detention and then share their work with the public in this spring exhibit.

Artwork as large as a mural or an automobile hood, and as small as a standard sheet of paper for a T-shirt logo,  hangs on the gallery walls.  Video screens show kids involved in movement, dance, and dramatic arts exercises. The young artists are unnamed, but for each group of art pieces, instructors and assistants have provided statements about the process and goals of the work.

“It’s more about the process than the products,” says Shelley Spivack, Flint attorney, juvenile court referee, and co-founder of “Arts in Detention.”

First large piece in the show, a student-made mural (Photo by Teddy Robertson)

The GVRC Share Art program began in the fall of 2011 as a pilot project. Spivack, who also teaches a juvenile justice and law class at UM-Flint, responded to the Ruth Mott Foundation’s “Share Art” call for project ideas. Awarded a mini-grant to re-establish an art workshop at GVRC (a previous one had lapsed), Spivack and Steven Hull (a Mott Community College art graduate studying criminal justice at UM-Flint), co-founded “Arts in Detention.”

Instructors in the Share Art program are either members of Buckham Gallery or other creative groups in Flint, or teach at one of the colleges. UM-Flint lecturer Traci Currie (in spoken word), and Todd Onweller, Hull, and J.T. Thigpen (all artists) formed the initial core of instructors. Currently seven artists, one student assistant, and two interns teach in the arts workshops.

Although boys and girls live in separate wings at GVRC, Spivack and Hull say, the workshops only became gender-geared as it emerged that girls had particular needs to express themselves while detained. Boys needed expression too, but their avenue of choice tended toward the visual arts.  During sessions there is no talk about charges or cases; instructors strive for an atmosphere of freedom to work in the arts.

Steven Hull (Photo by Teddy Robertson)

“In seven years,” Hull says, “only one student was removed from class and that was for mental health issues.”  Overall, the workshops relax the kids and they look forward to them. Over years, instructors have developed a relationship with staff and now work unguided in the facility.

As I walk the gallery, a stack of books grabs my eye with its DayGlo lime cover (artwork by Julie Abbott) of four girls stretching their arms upward to the book title: “HerStory: Unlocked.” The books are the 2016/2017 collection of girls’ poetry and short prose interspersed with photos of the actual products in the workshops led by Currie, Emma Davis, and assistant Jia Ireland. A grant from Michigan Humanities Council helped make the volume possible.

Another eye-catcher is a display of sculpted commedia dell’arte theatre masks done jointly by workshops in Boys Theatre and Visual Arts.  Titled “Shakesmedia,” the project involved study of stock character types and creating a visual image of characters.  A video shows the boys acting in guided improv scenes.

Shelley Spivack (Photo by Teddy Robertson)

Reflecting on her experience with “Arts in Detention,” Spivack says, “It’s done as much for us as it has for the kids; we see ourselves and our own place in the world differently.”  Asked how he feels about the GVRC Share Art program, Hull says, “It’s making a mark.”

Then Hull glances down at his phone; he works for state Child Protective Services and both he and Shelley are “on call” tonight. The needs of the kids are never far away.  Spivack comments that of those currently in short term detention, 16 are facing adult sentences; juvenile crime is declining, but sentencing as adults is rising.

Tonight, however, sharing the kids’ art at the annual exhibit is always fun. Besides the Art Walk public, court officials, probation officers, and judges often show up. Surprisingly, Spivack adds with a laugh, “In all our years with this community exhibit, no one has done a story done about [the show].”

I chat with Corinne Nuzum and Casey Hamann, former volunteers and now interns in visual arts with girls at GVRC.  They would like to develop a program specifically for interns. They want to get a grant that help interns with supplies—participants in their art group fluctuate from nine to 12 and they never have enough materials.

“We need continuing education too, training to develop our teaching skills in all media,” says Nuzum.  Hamann’s dream is to develop a cooking program.  She has worked at Crust in Fenton and cooking skills are practical for both boys and girls, both for employment and for life. “How long is your term as interns?” I ask.  Nuzum and Hamann laugh and respond in unison, “As long as Shelley and Steve will have us!”

“Arts in Detention” is growing beyond the walls of GVRC. In response to kids leaving GVRC who want to have something on the “outside,” a 12-week pilot project (in partnership with Genesee County Family Court) began Sept. 25, 2017.  With help from Gear UP Academy students, a workshop titled “Arts on Probation” is held weekly at the Juvenile Probation Office in the McCree Building.

Current funders of GVRC Share Art Project include: the Hagerman Foundation, the Flint Women and Girls Fund of the Community Foundation of Greater Flint, Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs, United Way of Genesee County, and Greater Flint Sunrise Rotary International.

“Arts in Detention: GVRC Share Art Exhibit” runs until May 5 at Buckham Gallery, 134 ½ W. Second Street.  Gallery Hours: Th-Sat: 12-5:30. See“HerStory: Unlocked” is available as a free e-book at

EVM staff writer and occasional columnist Teddy Robertson can be reached at




Author: East Village Magazine

A Non-profit, Community News Magazine Since 1976

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