Kids being held at the Jackson County juvenile detention center are finding comfort and inspiration from the world’s greatest leaders — thanks to a new mural painted by Ashland artist Michael Arciniega.
The montage of portraits and quotes overlooks the day use area, and is also visible from many of the bedroom cells.
“I think it’s pretty inspirational and it’s cool to be able to look out of my window in my room — like when the pod’s really chaotic and people choose to act out — and I can just see Mother Teresa smiling at me like she’s giving me encouragement,” says one girl.
The Mail Tribune isn’t using kids’ names in this story to protect their privacy. The teens worked with a reporter to help conduct interviews with each other and operate recording equipment.
The girl says her favorite quote on the wall comes from the Dalai Lama: “Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.”
She says, “I really try to apply that to life with all the people in here because everyone in here is going through so much and they just have a tough time.”
Arciniega says the initial idea for the mural was to feature a wide array of people, from sports heroes to inventors. He later pared the concept down to worldwide peace leaders, but plans to paint more murals inside the Jackson County Juvenile Services building, which houses the detention center, a residential program and juvenile court.
Arciniega says the kids who live and go to school inside the detention center came up with ideas for whom he should paint.
“We brainstormed initially. They had some really good insight on who to include,” Arciniega says, noting the kids quickly named Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Teresa and Abraham Lincoln.
Others who made the cut were Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi and John Lennon.
Arciniega says the kids didn’t have in-depth knowledge about some of the leaders.
“That’s part of the reason I wanted to include them — hopefully to encourage them to discover people and seek out more information on them, especially if they were inspired by their quotes,” he says.
Guy Tutland, a teacher who heads the one-room school inside the detention center, says he plans to create lessons and activities for the students to learn more about the peace leaders featured in the mural — then apply that information to their own lives.
He says many of the kids have experienced trauma.
“The mural helps students build resolve to change certain aspects of their lives,” Tutland says. “It is a constant visual reminder that others have suffered and persevered to make a positive impact in the lives of others. The mural offers hope to students that they can turn their lives around.”
Arciniega says just because the leaders were featured in the mural doesn’t mean they were all perfect. Many had human foibles or faced controversy and criticism.
Before focusing more of his attention on art, Arciniega was a Jackson County Juvenile Services counselor for almost eight years. His approach was generally to let upset kids vent, and then lend a compassionate ear to find out what was bothering them.
He loved working with the kids, but eventually the job took a toll.
“Some people are able to turn it off when they go home. I cared about them and it can get to you. It can be draining,” he says.
During the several months it took to paint the mural, Arciniega says he enjoyed seeing old friends among the staff members, making new friends and interacting with the kids in detention. Some quickly come and go, while others are there for longer periods of time.
The girl who can see Mother Teresa from her bedroom cell window says she has been at the center long enough to chat with Arciniega and see the whole mural project unfold.
“He was nice,” she says. “He would encourage me when he would see that I was having a bad day. He’d sit and talk to me.”
She says the leaders painted on the wall are role models.
“These people really pursued peace. And I’d like to try to do the same because my generation has grown up, I think, in a way different world than everybody else. Everything’s technological and there’s all of these arguments between all these countries and honestly I’m scared. And I’d like to try and promote peace like they did someday,” she says.
A boy at the center says he is most inspired by Mandela, who served 27 years of a life sentence for his opposition to the pro-apartheid government in South Africa. After winning his freedom, Mandela became president of the country and later was a philanthropist fighting poverty and AIDS.
“Being in here is rough, so having Mike do the mural is, like, really inspirational to us and probably the staff, too, because we get to wake up every morning and look at the quotes on the wall,” the boy says. “For me, it inspires me to do better throughout my day and to try and do my best and not get angry like I usually do.”
He says he’s also inspired by King, who was often jailed during the civil rights movement in America. The boy says he hasn’t fulfilled his own goal to be a positive role model and has wound up in the detention center.
“But I try my best, like Martin Luther King did, to turn it around and be as positive a leader as I can be,” says the boy, who plans to earn degrees in architecture and engineering, then start his own business and create jobs for others.
Another girl at the center says kids can look at the positive mural when they don’t have a good mindset.
“I think it’s really appropriate for this place, especially because of all the pain and all the things that people have come in here with,” she says.
With plans for more paintings in the building, both girls say they would nominate Jesus to be featured in a mural.
“I would pick Jesus because he didn’t care what other people thought about him. He just went out and did his own thing,” the first girl says.
A fellow student in the detention center school asked her if including Jesus would make some kids feel like religion was being foisted upon them.
“It’s their choice, and even though they don’t believe in him as a deity, he had some really good teachings that you can apply to life and you’ll have a pretty good life,” she says.
Arciniega says there are countless examples of people who could have been included in the mural, or who might be added to future murals.
“There were so many we didn’t include. If we included everyone, I’d be there my whole life. It would be like my Sistine Chapel,” he says of the Vatican City paintings that consumed four years of Michelangelo’s life.
Arciniega points to Malala Yousafzai as a possible candidate for a future mural.
A representative of younger generations, she was shot in the head in 2012 by the Taliban for campaigning for female education, survived and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014 at age 17 — becoming the youngest-ever Nobel laureate.
Going back in time, aviation pioneers Orville and Wilbur Wright might go up on a wall at the juvenile center.
“Everyone pooh-poohed them and thought they were crazy,” Arciniega says.
Jackson County Juvenile Services Deputy Director Joe Ferguson says he appreciates how Arciniega chose a variety of leaders to feature in the peace leaders mural — a move Ferguson thinks will help different types of kids connect with its inspirational message.
“He talks to the kids about who they are and the meaning behind their life and what they gave to the world,” Ferguson says.
Ferguson says there’s always hope that kids at the detention center will learn how to make better choices and have good futures.
Arciniega, who has led art groups at the detention center in addition to painting the mural, says sometimes kids need to be given a productive outlet for their energy. Some who are artistically gifted, for example, are expressing that talent through vandalism and graffiti.
“It’s kind of surprising sometimes the natural knack for art that they have,” he says. “And so I try to steer them maybe in a different direction. You know, like, ‘You’re good with that aerosol can. Have you ever tried airbrushing?’”
Arciniega says people don’t have to be artists to connect with troubled kids. Demonstrating compassion and asking about kids’ interests — whether that’s art, a line of clothing or a sports star — can get them to open up.
“Just like any other kid, they just need attention and time,” he says.