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Walt Disney Family Museum’s ‘Fresh Starts’ uncovers the artist as human

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FEBRUARY 26, 2019

Though we might not like to admit it, the title of “artist” inevitably carries with it certain connotations of prestige and practice. Yet to whom we grant such a label influences how we delineate which voices should and should not have a platform to be heard.

In “Fresh Starts,” an arts exhibition at Richmond’s Nurturing Independence Through Artistic Development, or NIAD Art Center, anybody who creates art is an artist — including incarcerated young men.

Over four months, The Walt Disney Family Museum, or WDFM, which organized the exhibition, sent its community access team to three juvenile detention centers in the greater San Francisco Bay Area. There, the team worked to teach around fifty young men how to create various forms of art — including painting, collaging, scratchboarding and sculpting.

By the end of the instruction period, the youth had created over 100 artworks, with every artist having at least one work featured somewhere in “Fresh Starts.” In curating the exhibition, works in which artists expressed who they are beyond incarceration were the highlights.

NIAD is half workspace, half gallery and functions as a resource for artists with disabilities and as a launchpad for their outside representation. The NIAD Art Center offers a space for disabled individuals to create art, express themselves and break free of stereotypes.“Fresh Starts” sought to help its young men achieve the same.

Those fresh starts exhibited at NIAD Art Center included several mixed media collages addressing heavy subjects, such as race and imprisonment, but not all the artwork focused solely on heavy subject matter — some included poop emojis and other silly messages. The lighthearted humor that appeared in these works served as a sharp reminder to the audience that many of these incarcerated artists are young boys.

To preserve the artists’ anonymity, pieces were listed in the exhibition under only their initials. T.G.’s stunning acrylic painting of a moonlit Golden Gate Bridge was undoubtedly the star of the show. The multicolored swirls of J.R.’s paper-cut “Animation Background I” evoke an image of magical transformation, linking back into the broader theme of the program itself.

It is impossible to ignore the fact that while WDFM is working to improve the outlook the public has on those incarcerated young men in juvenile detention, Walt Disney has been criticized for having perpetuated racial stereotypes. This is notable when one considers that “Fresh Starts” is attempting to not only offer these incarcerated men the opportunity to be more than incarcerated, but that it is simultaneously trying to dismantle stereotypes we have about prison — many of which revolve around race. So while WDFM is attempting to shed light on a prejudicial criminal justice system, the museum itself must acknowledge its racist past.

While it is important to acknowledge the controversial history connected to Walt Disney and, by default, the “Fresh Starts” exhibit, on its own the show highlighted the potential for transformation that is crucial to provide incarcerated youths. For the young men behind the art shown in “Fresh Starts,” creative expression allowed for an articulation of their humanity — to be seen as more than the racial stereotypes so often imposed upon them. And that alone is very significant.

Contact Nash Croker at [email protected].
LAST UPDATED

FEBRUARY 26, 2019


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