Unveiling the Mask: Art and Nature with Chicago Gang Members

My last year of graduate school, studying to be an art therapist, I interned at a residential drug treatment program for adolescent boys. The facility was just outside of Chicago, and I quickly learned that most of the boys I would be working with were affiliated with one of the over 75 identified gangs in the area. I remember thinking, “You are about to go way in over your head, Madelene.” And I was right. Even after studying up on the various gang signs and symbols, my sheltered self really had no clue about these kids. But I was willing to give them something not many people were willing to offer: A safe place to tell their story; to be themselves.

“I am an artist”

I quickly realized this was not as easy as I had hoped. Their stories were hidden behind layers and layers of bravado, denial and fear. Many of them has witnessed or experiences trauma. Many of them had seen someone die. Many of them seemed so used to disguising their feelings, they didn’t know what parts of them were real or fake.

Truth Hurts

As I was thinking about the best way to share my experience on this blog, I thought about a reflection I wrote near the end of my internship. I don’t profess to be an expert on gang life, but my experience at my internship profoundly affected me. I also felt that art and nature helped me receive a glimpse into their shadowed lives. So here is my side of the story:

“As I drive my car past the my internship’s sign, an arrow points me towards a small paved road bending out of sight behind a line of trees. Buildings, nestled in a forested oasis, appear in my view. Surrounding these buildings are 88 acres of woodland and marsh that extend out into one of the countless lakes in this region. My very first day as an intern, I decided to explore the area and walk to the outer edge of the peninsula. The expansive grassy lawn and pruned hedges around the buildings quickly gave way to a wilder undergrowth, and as I scrambled through the brush, I felt as I did when I was a child, allowed to run wild and barefoot in the small wooded grove behind our house. I would imagine myself as a fairy or magical creature, creating make-believe worlds out of acorns, flowers and leaves. Now, living in Chicago, such organic places are found behind gated fences or laced with cement walkways. In the city, the wild exists only as a tamed whisper. This place was literally for me, a breath of fresh air.

The Chicago skyline: A beautifully man-made concrete jungle. (Image found here)

As I breathe deeply I think about these boys. It is likely that many of them have never even set foot in a forest. Have they ever played “make-believe” with twigs and stones, or imagined themselves to be a woodland creature? Have they ever made mud pies in the dirt or scaled the top of a high tree branch? The natural wildness missing from their environment has instead overgrown inside of them. As I ponder their stories, I remember some research I read about birds that grow up isolated and sing abnormal song patterns. Similarly many of these boys have become feral children, isolated and insular through trauma, gangs and drugs. They know only one song, and it’s difficult for others to decipher.

Lost Boy

“Pull up! Pull up! Pass me the youdig, G.  I’d kick it with you on the block. Don’t go trickin’ on me! He be tweakin’!” They draw their trap houses and clucks, their grills and teardrops, their dice and masks. During art therapy, when I see a color paired with black I have to wonder out loud if it is gang-related. I might never know for sure. Sometimes, if I am lucky, they will let me take a peek into their world. I remember feeling proud when one of the residents called my group “straight.” Still the plethora of gang terminology with the signs, symbols and other references is difficult to master. I feel overwhelmed and paralyzed by this unknowing: is there anything that I can ever fully comprehend?   Of course, that is the point. If you are not a part of that culture, you are meant to be excluded. You aren’t meant to fully understand their world.

In working with these adolescent boys I have realized how frightening the prospect of emptiness is. What is left when you strip away the life you have been living for the last 3 or 4 years of your life? Is your previous life what’s left over? Or is there only a hole that remains…a dark and scary nothingness. Or worse yet: a large and gaping wound, too painful to bear. And so they hide behind their gangs, and their guns, and their marijuana leaves. “It’s hard to be real when everyone around you is fake,” one boy told me. These boys are scared, lonely, and unable to trust anyone—least of all themselves.

Which way to go?

My art response to “Which way to go?”

I have to resist my mothering instincts—my desire to pull them up, rescue them and keep them safe is at times almost irresistible. Instead I strain every nerve to remember the woods in back of my house, the fairies and nymphs that kept me company. I treasure the long days of hiking and self-reflection in the Appalachian pines, and the peace and solitude of wandering through nearby forests. It is not my job to remove them from the wilderness of their lives. Instead, my hope is to help them find meaning and direction, to see beauty and worth in themselves, and to blaze towards uncharted territory with their imagination as a compass.”

Wish Stick

Hard and soft. Light and heavy.

Outdoor installation: Inner Strengths.

NB: I take confidentiality very seriously. Releases were signed to show this artwork, and every effort was made to keep identities private.

— Madelene Pario


2 responses to “Unveiling the Mask: Art and Nature with Chicago Gang Members

  1. Pingback: The Best Disguise, or is it? « Connect Shore·

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