Arts and Culture

More than one out of every 10 Kentucky children have a parent who is incarcerated, the highest percentage in the nation, according to a study released Monday by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Parental incarceration has been identified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as one of the “adverse childhood experiences” that contributes to health problems later in life.

One group in Louisville is working to mitigate that damage, and they’re using art to do it.

On a recent Sunday evening in the basement of the Hall of Justice, at Sixth and Liberty streets in downtown Louisville, artist Mari Mujica worked with a 6-year-old boy who came to visit a relative who is incarcerated at the Louisville Metro Department of Corrections.

The visitors’ lobby is bleak: concrete walls, gray floors and plastic chairs. There’s not a lot for a kid to do, and they may wait as long as three hours for a video-screen visit.

Mujica offered the boy a choice of colored pencils or crayons for decorating the inside of a small cardboard box that originally held granola bars. She also had squares of colorful wrapping paper and glue sticks. They can’t bring scissors into the lobby so they used a plastic ruler to help tear the paper on a straight line.

“Can we do under[neath]?” the boy asked.

“Of course, it’s your box,” Mujica answered. “You can do anything you want, it’s your art.”

He murmured, “Thank you,” and began coloring.

“That’s the great thing about art, you get to choose,” Mujica said.

Mujica and her colleague, Michelle Amos, were there with the Special Project, a nonprofit organization that provides art-making opportunities for children in the visitors’ lobby. They’ve been doing this every Sunday night for the last 8 years.

The Special Project began with a mother who had visited her incarcerated son and wanted to provide a positive activity for some of the children she saw in the visitors’ lobby. She approached the Kentucky Foundation for Women with a $25,000 donation, which became the Special Project.

According to the Metro Department of Corrections, the average stay there is 20 days, but it can be up to 12 months. Judi Jennings, who helped start the Special Project, said it can be a challenge to educate people about their work.

“It is an important issue for everybody and bringing it up to the public without stigmatizing the children is tough,” she said.

Making art has many benefits in this situation, according to Jennings: It’s peaceful and relaxing, it can be a positive outlet, and it can strengthen the relationship between the child and the caregiver who brings them. Simply coloring together can be helpful.

“We used to want children to make art and not color,” Jennings said. “I was like, it’s just coloring. But a child psychiatrist said coloring is very important, especially when you’re sitting next to someone and talking to them about it, so please do not say ‘just coloring.’”

The artists also offer the opportunity to write a letter or make a card for their loved one. The Special Project provides stamps, envelopes and the correct address for the inmate, and they’ll even drop it in the mailbox. They provide spelling help, too: One boy making a card asked how to spell the word “miss,” as in, “I miss you.”

Mujica said the work has become more important to her over the years.

“I really love the work, and the more we do it, learning about the adverse effects that incarceration has on children and I don’t know, it just keeps getting closer and closer, at least in my case, to my heart,” Mujica said.

Organizers say they hope to expand the art-making approach into other social services that work with families dealing with incarceration. But until then, they’ll be at the Hall of Justice every Sunday.

Tara Anderson is a writer, host, and audio producer.