Troubled youths find artistic voice

The Miami Herald

November 11, 1999

By Eunice Ponce

About 100 judges, lawyers and others who help troubled youths reconstruct their lives showed up Wednesday night for a happy-hour fund-raiser organized by the Miami-Dade County juvenile court system.

The event, sponsored by Varig Brazilian Airlines, Jack Daniel’s, the Krisartt furniture studio and Tradelitho printers, was held at the penthouse of the Grand Bay Hotel in Coconut Grove.

Using several fund-raising methods — a $20 cover charge, a raffle for electronics, a silent auction for trips to Brazil and New York — organizers hoped to raise $6,000 or $7,000 toward a $40,000 art project called Building a World Safe for the Dreams of Children.

When the project is completed, a multimedia art display will be showcased at the juvenile courthouse, 3300 NW 27th Ave. It will feature the artwork and writings of more than 500 youths in the juvenile court system.

“A hundred years ago, three kids in Chicago were executed for crimes, and it alarmed the entire nation. Then the juvenile justice system was born,” said artist Xavier Cortada, who met with the youths to capture their passions and frustrations on an acrylic and canvas mural.

The mural will eventually hang in the waiting room of the courthouse, and a much larger replica in glass-tile mosaic will grace the facade of the building.

“We’re here to commemorate 100 years of people trying to make a difference,” said Judge Scott Bernstein, who thought of the idea.

The juvenile court system cares for children from infancy to age 19 who have been abused, neglected, abandoned or have committed crimes. It offers foster homes, emergency shelter and rehabilitative services as well as education and medical care for youths.

Cortada unveiled two panels of his mural, created to represent the feelings of those currently in the system. The painting was both appealing and disturbing.

In vibrant primary colors, a youth with outstretched arms reaches above the scale of justice and a family of two adults and two siblings. But on closer look, the boy wears a shackle on one wrist. The faces of the nearby children frown, their mouths in angry squares.

“Are those shackles about to open, or are they closing?” the artist asked. “Is that adult hand over the siblings a guiding hand or a sexually molesting one?”

When finished, the mural will have three more panels bearing the actual artwork and uncensored writings of the troubled youths.

Bernstein, the judge, looked at the painting, paused and said, “This is the reality of what we see every day.”