Mindful Art with the Northampton County Juvenile Justice Center
Updated: May 21
Kristin Baxter, Associate Professor of Art at Moravian College, has been leading Shanthi Project’s Art Project since fall 2017, teaching art lessons to the teen residents of Northampton County Juvenile Justice Center. In this post she shares the origins of the Project along with some highlights and learnings.
quilt made by Art Project students
In 2016, I completed my yoga teacher training (RYT-200) and learned about the Shanti Project from my fellow classmates. I was immediately drawn to the mission of Shanti Project and signed up for the weekend workshop on trauma-informed yoga teaching practices and Mindfulness Practices to Improve Self-Regulation & Well-being for the Trauma Survivor. The relationships I built at that workshop then led to my connections at the Northampton County Juvenile Justice Center (NCJJC), where I’ve been teaching art lessons to the teen residents, every other week since the fall of 2017.
As the director of the art education program at Moravian College who prepares future art teachers, it’s always been important to me to continue to teach children and adolescents even as my primary job is now teaching college level. The opportunity to teach the teens at NCJJC has been both personally and professionally rewarding. When I started this program, I designed the art projects to be relatively simple so that they could be completed in one class meeting (usually about two hours in length). Since I don’t always see the same students each time I’m there, it would be hard to plan to complete the work on my next visit.
“…the students thrive on challenge and problem-solving”
However, as my relationship with NCJJC has evolved, I’m able to see that the students thrive on challenge and problem-solving. They want to construct things; they have lots of ideas and want to see those ideas come to life in their artwork. So I’ve learned to tailor my lessons to their interests and be more open to planning more intricate lessons. We’ve constructed “agamographs,” which are paintings or drawings that are optical illusions; they feature different images when viewed from different angles.
We’ve also created fabric weavings and my plan is to combine the students’ fabric squares into a “quilt” that can be placed on view at the Center. Other projects we’ve completed include painting and collaging wooden Matryoshka or nesting “dolls,” which are hollow wooden shapes that decrease in size, each one fitting into the next. We’ve made handmade books out of simple envelopes and origami-folded books that fit into boxes.
And, funny enough, one of the most-requested activity is “Shrinky Dinks.” (If you’re as old as me, you might remember these projects from your childhood in the 70’s!) I had no idea how popular I would become on the day I brought the materials to make these tiny plastic charms! Subsequently, I’ve brought in simple silver necklaces and keychains and the residents have been completely enraptured with making these very simple charms that they can give as gifts to their families. At Christmas, they turned into holiday ornaments. Even the staff who attend our art classes sometimes join in!
Art Project Program Director Kristin Baxter
Our little art program at NCJJC has also grown beyond just artmaking at the Center. Last summer, two residents and staff joined me for a tour at the Allentown Art Museum’s exhibition of photographs by sport photographers followed by an artmaking activity. In the fall, several residents and staff came to visit one of my classes at Moravian College to be inspired to apply to college one day. My students at Moravian College also completed the designs for three murals for each pod. The murals were designed with broad outlines so that it would be simple for residents and staff to “color in” with paint, on their own.
As I reflect on my work with NCJJC, I see how much I honor the young residents. As we make art, the teens laugh and talk about the inspiration behind their art (or what’s for dinner!). They share ideas, they help each other, they encourage each other. They ask each other, “Wow, That’s amazing! How did you do that!?” Through these conversations I see that they aren’t just making art, they are constructing new knowledge about their life experiences, about others, and about their world. One could argue that they aren’t making art at all, they’re making meaning. That’s what all of us do when we are making art, and I’m privileged to share this opportunity with the young people I’ve met at NCJJC.