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Expressive Art: A healing tool for detention students | Education

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Expressive Art: A healing tool for detention students

WEST OLIVE, Mich. (WZZM) - The job of an art therapist is to implement a creative process that will help clients increase insight, cope with stress and work through traumatic experiences, with the hopes of achieving greater self-fulfillment.

That task can be even more challenging when your clients are juvenile detention students.

There is one Ottawa County art teacher who is transforming young lives by teaching them expression through colors on a canvas.  Colors can mean anything to anybody.

"The green is where he started to get abusive and bruise me," said one Ottawa County juvenile detention student. "The red is where I got to this facility and started to cut {myself} and tried to kill myself."

Yet, for some, colors may be darker.

At the Ottawa County Juvenile Detention Center, colors are a big part of learning.

"I think all humans need to express," said Angie Briggs-Johnson, who has taught "expressive art" to detention students for the past 12 years.  When the students enter the facility and those air-lock doors close behind them, a different form of education begins.

"We're just hopeful," added Briggs-Johnson.

The different form of education is called - restorative education.

"They're stuck in that fight or flight mode in their head," said Briggs-Johnson. "They're worried about food or shelter, or am I going to get jumped, or am I going to get kicked out of school."

Briggs-Johnson says by learning how to express yourself through art, the detention students can start hearing what's being said and what's being taught to them in the classrooms. The method Briggs-Johnson uses is called "expressive art."

"The message that's been replaying in their heads needs to be changed," added Briggs-Johnson. "It's more about putting their story on paper."

And some of the stories that come through the juvenile detention facility are heartbreaking.

"Probably one of the hardest story to hear was a teenage girl who came in. She was a beautiful girl with a beautiful spirit, yet her father had been prostituting her out to his friends," Briggs-Johnson said tearfully.

She says expressive art provides messages of hope and renewal for the troubled detention students through stroke from a paint brush or the use of chalk.

"If you are aware of your feelings, you can control them, and if you can control them and understand them, then you can handle your behaviors and the rest of the world around you," added Briggs-Johnson.

In a way, it's an "art intervention" for these detention students.

"Education is the best antidote to crime," says Karen McPhee, superintendent of the Ottawa Area Intermediate School District. "Angie reminds them that just because they are where they are right now, doesn't mean that's where they need to be or will be in the future."

The students learn to create and add meaning to their lives.

"I think when students experience that, then school starts to make more sense and making better choices seems to make more sense to them," added McPhee.

McPhee's claim is evidenced by one of Angie Briggs-Johnson's prize pupils.

"When we look at ourselves in the mirror, we can look at ourselves on canvas," said Candelario, who spent two years in Ottawa County's juvenile lock-up. "Miss Angie showed me there's different ways to expression."

Candelario's incarceration stemmed from several major criminal offenses.

"I had plenty of counsel for alcohol abuse and drug abuse," said Candelario. "I was involved in criminal gang activity, drug smuggling, vandalizing property, gang violence and fighting."

He was arrested when he was 15 years old.

Candelario says learning expressive art in Briggs-Johnson's class opened his mind and made him realize for the first time that he needed help and he learned how to allow colors to speak for him.

"We can put {our life} on paper and show our experiences to ourselves," said Candelario. "I painted a new picture in life."

The healing power of art helped Candelario find a new outlook.

"Life is a brand new canvas everyday," he said. "What are we going to draw up for today?"

And that's the message Briggs-Johnson hopes her current detention students discover.

"Aren't we all just broken people, if we're being honest," said Briggs-Johnson. "{These detention students} are no different than the rest of us. They just need somebody to show them that they can still be great, even through the brokenness."

The Ottawa County Juvenile Detention "Expressive Art" program is one of only two like it in the state of Michigan.  The other program is in Macomb County.

Angie Briggs-Johnson was recently honored by the Council for Exceptional Children for being one of Michigan's educators of the year for 2012.

As for Candelario, he currently has a full-time job and plans to go to college and pursue a career in criminal justice.