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Exhibit Gives Incarcerated Teens A Voice

John Pemble
"The World In A Trash Can" is the centerpiece to the art exhibit "Know Justice." It was created by teenagers while in a detention center, guided by ArtForce Iowa mentors Saulaman Schiegel and Jordan Weber.

A new art exhibit with works by troubled teens about social justice issues is now in a downtown Des Moines gallery. The effort is organized by ArtForce Iowa, a non-profit group working with teens going through the court system.  The centerpiece was created this spring in a classroom at the Polk County Juvenile Detention Center.  

Des Moines artists and mentors with ArtForce Iowa Saulaman Schiegel and Jordan Weber conducted eight weekly 90 minute workshops at the detention center. During the final night, they are helping a dozen teenagers dressed in jump suits finish a modern art installation inspired by social problems affecting them.  

Racism, income inequality, war, and environmental concerns are some of the top issues represented by a blue globe that looks like Earth stuffed in a metal trash can.  One young man is gluing newspaper articles to the blue ball.  He says they selected stories about some of the bad things going on in the world and cut them into the shapes of continents.

As they work, Schiegel tells them art demonstrates there is more than one solution to a problem.

“Us bringing art in here, to you guys to show you like what kind of power it has,” says Schiegel. “It’s like our main goal.”  

The solution part of this installation is a series of rectangle shaped foam they are painting to look like text books.  After all the parts are done, Schiegel takes the many pieces to the Polk County Heritage Gallery and assembles them for an exhibit titled Know Justice.

The garbage can and planet are on three-foot risers, but the most striking object next to the garbage can is a life-sized mannequin dressed in a detention jumpsuit sitting on a stack of textbooks.   A recording of door slams fills the reverberant space, adding a dramatic effect.  This large installation is titled The World In A Trash Can.

Schiegel says one of the reasons he put this exhibit together is to make sure the ideas of these teens can be heard through art in a public space.

“A lot of these kids are looked at you know every single day as a number,” says Schiegel.  “They’re thinking, breathing beings. These are young people that have a voice, and this is that.”

Earlier this year, Schiegel and other artists with ArtForce Iowa worked with teenagers who have previously been through detention to make paintings and installations about their experiences. Dozens of these pieces surround the gallery. One is a canvas with five face masks, four of them are brown and one of them is white. It represents the disproportionate number of incarcerated African-Americans.


Credit John Pemble
"Control (or Lack Thereof)" is one of the canvas pieces in the "Know Justice" exhibit created by a teenager who once spent time in a juvenile detention facility.

During an evening event at the gallery, these young artists have gathered to read poetry they wrote for this exhibit.  After reading a poem, one of the 16-year-olds says she was in a detention facility on five separate occasions last year.  She never wants to go back and says having a platform like this exhibit is a positive influence.  


“When you’re in a dark place like that, it’s really hard to be helped. But what really does help is hearing a good voice. I just wanna be that good voice for people to hear.”

Saulaman Schiegel says allowing these kids to be creative helps everyone learn more about the complicated issues they face.


“The kids are not alright. Maybe I’m not alright, but self-expression is the only way that we’re going to eventually be able to address what we need to,” says Schiegel. “These are my guys. These are my family, you know. I love these kids.”

The Know Justice exhibition will remain on display through the first week of June at the Polk County Heritage Gallery.