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FEATURE: Art Project Reaches Incarcerated Youth

LEXINGTON, Ky. - For boys and girls incarcerated at juvenile detention centers, the future beyond their next court date can seem dark and uncertain. The facilities house children and teenagers facing charges that range from habitual truancy to violent crimes.

The inside of the Fayette Regional Juvenile Detention Center can be a stark place: plain cement block walls, staff talking on two-way radios, and thick metal doors that slam shut. The maximum security facility houses up to 60 kids at a time who have been ordered detained by a judge.

Life here is very structured for residents, but for the past two weeks, something different has happened in the detention center’s hallways: the kids are busy painting floor-to-ceiling murals.

“These murals are kind of like large coloring books. I come in, I draw them on the wall, and essentially mix the paints for them and they paint them in, ”says Emmanuel Martinez, a Colorado-based painter and sculptor.

Last year at the urging of a former student, Martinez started the Emmanuel Project, a non-profit program for juvenile detention centers. He’s traveled to facilities in Georgia, Tennessee, and Indiana helping kids paint murals that depict images like community and different career choices.

“I believe that artwork belongs to everybody. One of the missions I’ve made in my life is to take art to just the common people.”

Like the children at the detention centers he visits, Martinez also had a troubled upbringing and run-ins with law enforcement. He remembers collecting the matchsticks that were used to light cigarettes and drawing on paper towels because the corrections facility wouldn’t give him paper or pencil.

Art changed Martinez’s life, and the painter doesn’t want today’s youth to lose sight of their own dreams.

“These kids still have hope. These young people made mistakes just like we all have and still do.”

Martinez says what he wants kids at the detention centers to learn from painting is that mistakes don’t have to lead to failure.

“That’s how they have to start seeing their life. They have to realize that they’re going to be confronting mistakes and problems, and they have to make the right choices.”

Most of the murals Martinez designs for the detention centers have entirely positive themes, but he’s starting to depict a small amount of negativity in the artwork – like loitering and graffiti -- because Martinez says that’s a choice the kids have to face as well.

Two murals at the Fayette Regional Juvenile Detention Center will be unveiled Friday morning.

The Emmanuel Project also works with facilities to develop a long-term art curriculum for incarcerated youth. Martinez plans to take his murals to more detention centers across the country.

Lexington native Brenna Angel anchored local morning newscasts for WUKY through May 13. She joined the station in March 2010 after previously working for WHAS-AM in Louisville.