Arts program creates space for kids with incarcerated family

Damien Smith Jr. holds up drawings in Madison, WI on Tuesday, July 24. Smith Jr. is a participant in Cultural Connections, a program for kids with incarcerated parents to in create and appreciate the power of art. (Lisa Speckhard Pasque /The Capital Times via AP)


The Capital Times

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MADISON, Wis. — Damien Smith Jr. wasn’t always embarrassed that his father is in prison. Just this winter, when playing with a giant checker set at the Monona Public Library, he readily told a little girl that he played the game with his dad in prison and beat him all the time.

But Damien’s grandmother, Pat Dillon, saw the look on the little girl’s face.

At 6, Damien doesn’t want to talk about his dad’s incarceration anymore. He gets teased or talked about. This summer, he was bullied.

“I knew that there would come a point in his life where he was going to feel different than the other kids . he was going to hide it, it would embarrass him, even though he has a great relationship with his dad. He adores his dad,” Dillon told The Capital Times .

But thanks to a pilot program Dillon created, Smith Jr. has a chance to meet other kids with incarcerated parents, in a stigma-free space to create and appreciate the power of art. It’s a chance for these children — who often face an array of challenges — to experience a program created specifically for them.

“Those kids are so commonly stigmatized that they hide. Then they suffer their traumas silently … Yet we don’t collectively seek these kids out and create support for them,” Dillon said.

There’s an estimated 2,000 children in Dane County with an incarcerated parent. Dillon can witness firsthand the effects of incarceration on her grandson, but as a writer, she’s also researched the needs of kids like Smith Jr. more broadly.

Those needs, outlined in an Isthmus article Dillon wrote earlier this year, include a higher risk of homelessness, “adverse childhood experiences” like living with a drug-addicted or abusive caregiver, health and behavioral problems and poor school performance.

Yet local resources and programs tailored specifically for children with incarcerated parents are hard to find. Madison-area Urban Ministry offers several programs, like mentoring for these kids and organized trips to visit parents in prison. Dillon’s Cultural Connections, launched this summer, aims to provide self-empowerment and confidence for these kids.

For its first project, Cultural Connections kids are painting the outside of a mock solitary confinement cell for an exhibit to be titled “Confined: Honoring the solitary experience of children with a parent in prison.”

Philip Ashby, scenic designer at Wisconsin Public Television, designed the cell and two artists from ArtWorking, an organization that supports artists and entrepreneurs with developmental and intellectual disabilities, are helping paint some of the sides. The inside of the cell will act as an informational kiosk.

The cell will be displayed at the Makeshift Festival in Tenney Park and then “resurrected” and displayed in the Central Library for this fall’s Gallery Night.

The cell is coming together in the Dane Arts Mural Arts space on the east side of town. DAMA and Cultural Connections share a similar mission of engaging kids, said Alicia Rheal, a lead artist for DAMA, and was happy to invite them in.

On a recent Tuesday, ArtWorking artists Briana Richardson and Romano “Mano” Johnson were at work. Richardson said her painting, of a mother holding a child on a grassy field, can be read several ways: it can be the last goodbye before a parent goes to prison or it can represent friends and family members helping out with the kids in their absence.

The kids were asked to paint pictures of themselves with their dads, so Damien drew a picture in a garden. When he visits his dad in prison, they have to stay inside, he said.