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Luskin: The Humanizing Power of Art

The Brattleboro Community Justice Center celebrated its tenth anniversary last week with a one-day exhibit of artwork by Vermonters affected by violent crime and by violent offenders in a Vermont prison.

Saving a Place at the Table featured place settings for those affected by criminal violence – people who were either killed or whose lives were severely changed by violence. Created by the survivors of the missing loved ones, these place settings were an eloquent articulation of how there is never a single victim of violence, even when only one person dies. This ripple effect is often overlooked in a criminal justice system that focuses on the offender more than the victim, and pays even less attention to the indirect victims of violence. But every victim represented in the place settings was someone’s child, most were someone’s parent, and a few were husbands or wives. The crime that killed one person also victimized their parents, their children, and their spouses. These place settings expressed some of their grief.

Saving A Place At the Table is a project of Vermont’s Victim Services Program, an on-going program that provides information, assistance and support to victims of crime when the offender is in the custody or under the supervision of the Vermont Department of Corrections. Artwork by six violent offenders was also on display.

These offenders were students at the Community High School of Vermont inside the Northern State Correctional Facility in Newport. They were enrolled in a course called Art Empathy .

In weekly meetings, these students engaged in conversations about responsibility, altruism, and the benefits of giving back to others while expecting nothing in return. Students were introduced to the concept of “paying it forward” – how each student had a responsibility to do for others in honor of those they’d criminally harmed. The course culminated with each student creating a piece of art expressing their understanding of the impact they’d had on their victims.

Students illustrated scrolls that told their stories - stories whose arc traveled from thoughtless criminal behavior to thoughtful self-knowledge and expression of true empathy. Additionally, the work displayed talent. It was visually arresting, skillfully done, and moving. Seen side-by-side, this artwork by victims and offenders was more powerful than either exhibit seen alone. This artwork by two sets of such very different artists illustrated how art can help us make sense of our lives. Both the place settings and the scrolls were eloquent autobiographical expressions of horrific events. The works also non-verbally communicated a wide range of emotions, including grief, bitterness, personal growth, gratitude, remorse and forgiveness.

It’s clear that creating art helped both survivors and offenders begin to come to terms with tragic events that derailed all of their lives. Viewing the art was also a powerful experience of wonder and gratitude to both sets of artists, wonder at the courage it took to reveal their dark, personal journeys, and gratitude for sharing it. Doing so reaffirmed the power of art to humanize us all.

Deborah Lee Luskin is a writer, speaker and educator.
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